Protecting the airspace is a job that has fallen traditionally on the military of the corresponding nation, and enforced by policies put forth by civil government agencies (e.g., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States). For severe infractions of a criminal nature, outside of the purview of civil authorities, law enforcement agencies are involved.
However, what about a minor airspace infraction of civil policy or laws? What if what has transpired is a careless act? While possibly criminal in nature, what if it is committed by an individual who is ignorant of the law(s) governing the airspace?
The actions of such a person may be very hazardous if the perfect storm occurs, but for the most part, their activity is more of a nuisance than a danger. In these instances, do you use the power of a “canon” to deal with a “fly”?
Here lies the new realm of security for the manned aircraft industry and the airports that they fly in and out of. The proliferation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, has created a new hazard for air travellers that regulatory officials and security specialists must address.
Drones, initially a remote-control model aircraft of experienced remote pilots, have become an inexpensive recreation technology for novice operators. They can be purchased just about anywhere and mastered within hours. And the market shows no signs of slowing down for this relatively new technology. According to Yahoo Finance and Precedence Research, the global commercial drone market size is expected to be worth around US$504.5 billion by 2030. It is poised to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 46.04% over the forecast period from 2022 to 2030 (Precedence Research, 2022).
And like the growth of the drone market, air traffic demand continues to grow. According to ACI World data, air traffic demand is set to grow at a cumulative CAGR of 2.6 from 2021–2041 in North America. This means that more planes and more drones will be sharing the same airspace. How can an already cluttered sky full of manned aircraft contend with sharing the skies with small lithium battery-powered drones flown by individuals with minimal knowledge of laws or potential consequences of a collision?
Civilian commercial airports are most affected by this problem because they are less equipped than military airports that may have some technology, or at least the availability of technology, to deal with the issue. In comparison, civilian commercial airports may not be authorized to possess drone detection or mitigation technology.
As of now, there has not been a significant incident (downed aircraft) due to a drone collision, but that does mean that there is no risk. As a Detective for the NYPD Counterterrorism, I was the lead on the Counter Drone program (C-UAS) for the police department. I was also part of numerous multi-agency working groups that tracked these types of incidents across the globe, but I didn’t have to look too far to see what was happening. Within the two major airports in NYC, many pilots would report drone sightings from the inside of their aircraft. The seriousness of the sighting was judged by whether or not they would have to take some evasive action to avoid a collision. Some pilots would report sightings north of 10,000 feet in the air.
A common categorization for the drone problem has been putting operators/drone pilots into one of three tiers:
The biggest threat to incoming and outgoing aircraft from airports comes from the clueless and the careless (e.g., a person who is gifted a drone for recreational use). The criminal actor is an entirely different problem to contend with. Unlike the clueless or the careless, the criminal is determined to break the law and cause some degree of harm.
Criminal acts can range from attempting to down an aircraft to conducting nuisance attacks in order to disrupt air travel by forcing a stop to all aircraft traffic. Of course, the most infamous of these types of disruption was the Gatwick drone sightings of 2018. The incident affected 140,000 travellers, and more than 1,000 flights were canceled while police and military were brought in to assist in locating the drone(s) and their operators (Menedez, 2019).
Training should be the start of any solution, from awareness-level training to advanced response. All airport personnel and surrounding agencies (e.g., fire, police, security) should be trained on the dangers of flying drones too close to the airport. If the public is not sufficiently educated on the dangers of drones, they can’t be adequately reported. As the famous post-9/11 slogan goes, if you see something, say something.
Changes in Government policy are second to training in the list of solutions for improving safe drone operations. While there are many rules and regulations governing all aspects of drone use, the biggest problem in the case of the US when it comes to these rules is that the consumer is not obligated to familiarize himself or herself with these rules before purchasing the drone. They are required to do so after purchase. However, there is no infrastructure in place to enforce this regulation, so rarely does it get enforced.
The last solution is drone detection/mitigation technology and providing the legal authorities needed to deploy these systems to those who need them the most. For years, militaries worldwide have used what is commonly known as Detect, Track, ID, and Disrupt Counter Drone or C-UAS technology. The need first arose in overseas conflicts where enemy combatants were using commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) drones and modifying them to deliver improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was not the first to use this technique, but they were the ones who leveraged it widely. They created a specialized drone air force trained to attack their enemies, including US fighters. This low-cost, high-yield tactic soon forced Western soldiers to turn to the military industry to devise a solution. Thus, the C-UAS business was born.
This technology, when properly deployed, can detect a drone before it even leaves the ground. I used similar technology during dozens of operations while working for the NYPD. The best part of this technology is that it can also locate the pilot by tracking the communication between the drone and controller (i.e., ground station). This makes it easy to deal with nuisance drones not adhering to airport airspace regulations.
Mitigation technology (i.e., designed to alter a drone’s flight path) operates on the drone’s radio frequency so as not to interfere with other electronic frequencies. This last resort option could be used to protect airliners from a collision with a drone. The military is constantly testing and evaluating this type of “smart jammer” for combat deployment. If we can use it to protect our soldiers, why shouldn’t we be able to use it to protect our airport infrastructure and the people who use it?
This type of technology is new to the non-military market and can confuse security partners responsible for securing the airspace around airports. For this reason, Airports Council International (ACI) World created the Counter Drones Knowledge Centre. This website provides users with information on Lawful Drone Operations, Global/Regional and National Frameworks, Airport Preparedness, and Response Drone Prevention Measures. This site, supported by Vigilant Drone Defense Inc., can help give airport employees and executive basic knowledge on this new threat.
When it comes to protecting our skies from the unsafe or nefarious use of drones, we must be able to use the available tools to keep our aircraft, passengers, and facilities safe. X-ray-type machines are not the only technology needed in the airport security industry. We must look ahead to new rules and regulations and detection systems that will keep the airspace clear for take-offs and landings.
FAA. (2022). FAA Aerospace Forecast Fiscal Years 2022–2042. Washington DC: FAA.
Menedez, E. (2019). Gatwick drone chaos cost the airport £1,400,000. Metro Co. UK.
Precedence Research. (2022). Commercial Drones Market Size to be Worth Around USD 504.5 Bn by 2030. Yahoo.com.
Retired NYPD Detective, Ralph Gonzalez is currently Vice President of Critical Infrastructure at Vigilant Drone Defense. Ralph served in the NYPD for 20 years. He was assigned to the Counterterrorism Bureau as a member of the Counterterrorism Division’s Special Projects team. Ralph has served as an instructor for the Counterterrorism Bureau, teaching a wide range of terrorism-related topics. Ralph has previously served as part of the adjunct faculty at the Metropolitan College of New York’s Emergency and Disaster Management Master’s Program and the Monroe College Criminal Justice Program. Ralph also served as a liaison to the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL).