Drones and airports: When things can go wrong

Guest Author by Guest Author | Jun 9, 2020

Written by Oleg Vornik, CEO, DroneShield (ASX:DRO)

Consumer and commercial grade drones have been rapidly rising in popularity in the last five years. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration forecasts, seven million drones are expected to be sold in the US alone by end of this year. Drones do not require any registration, as they are largely treated as toys or consumer electronics – and sold in same type of stores. The positive uses have been many, including aerial imaging, film making, real estate and construction, surveillance of critical infrastructure in remote or dangerous locations, and of course recreational use. But what about the other side?

The dark side of drones

Drone technology has evolved at breath-taking speed. A $1,000 device weighing only 2kg can fly 7-10km, is equipped with sophisticated GPS navigation and obstacle-avoidance sensors, can carry high quality cameras on stabilised gimbals, and carry 250g of weight. This doesn’t sound like much, but is potentially lethal when the package is an explosive. A higher budget of $10-$20,000 will buy a high-spec drone designed for long-distance flights on an automatic navigation setting and high payload capacity. This could be used for spraying crops but a nefarious substance like a chemical or biological agent can be loaded in just as easily.

Drones can be anonymous and highly effective disruption tools to airports

Drone disruptions at airports

In an airport setting, drones are a significant hazard. When a drone is sucked into a jet engine, for instance, the metal or plastic device with high-capacity batteries has the potential to cause far more damage than that created from a bird strike.

A drone coming into contact with a fast-moving plane, can damage the body of the plane or the windshield. Today, airports shut down flights when a drone is sighted for precisely these reasons – like the well-publicised Gatwick Airport shutdown in December Christmas 2018. The Gatwick incident was reported to affect 140,000 passengers with 1,000 flights diverted or cancelled and reported cost of GBP$50-$75 million to the airport and airlines.

Flights at Frankfurt Airport, home base of Lufthansa, were grounded after a drone was seen in early March 2020

The three C’s

So who would fly drones around airports? Industry experts call it the three C’s – those that are careless, clueless or criminal. The first two arise when the drone pilot is either careless or unaware of the danger their drone poses to the airport. Some plane-spotters love using drones to get closer footage of aircraft, for example. But then there those that which to deliberately cause disruption or damage which is made more possible by the airport’s difficulty in detecting and disabling unauthorized drones.

Plane spotters – deadly when with drones

Minimizing drone risk

So, what can an airport legally and prudently do to minimize the risk of drone disruptions? Drone detection technology today has evolved from detection and tracking drones in real time.

Nowadays, technology can approximate a drone pilot’s location. Now the pilot can be apprehended without having to bring down the drone.

Airports can follow these guidelines:

  • Add counter-drone security to existing systems. Detecting drones is a specialist task that needs its own systems. Equipment designed for other purposes, such as tracking planes, birds or ground intruders, will not perform well to detect drones (and certainly not disable them).
  • Learn about best practice technologies. When it comes to detection, radiofrequency direction finders (RFDF) are considered better than radar. They can detect and classify drone targets much further away (10km at an industry-leading capabilities that can be daisy-chained together), at a substantially cheaper price. Also, RFDF is a passive system which doesn’t interfere with the rest of the airport’s sensor network and does not require spectrum approvals. Once the RFDF layer is in place, additional layers can include radar (remember to consider spectrum approvals), and cameras. Acoustics is unlikely to be effective at airports due to noise saturation of the microphones.
  • Identify drone hots spots – those areas where aircraft are most likely to come into contact with a drone. These are likely to be the end points of runways and take-off and approach paths. A common mistake is to consider deploying a counterdrone system “to see if there is a problem” – the objective, however, should be to provide continued protection as the issue is now well established.  
  • Implement, if and when feasible, drone jamming technologies. These can ground intruding drones in real-time but it’s important to consider jammers with least collateral damage such as impact on airport’s communication and navigation systems.

These measures are subject to the development of local regulations and standards for the operation of drones, within a framework that promotes the safety of all aircraft sharing the skies.

Airport operators can be informed and active in decision-making with government, regulators, local law enforcement agencies, and aircraft operators to develop and publish procedures that suit their local conditions.        

What’s next for drones?

It’s inevitable that drone attacks will continue to proliferate, grow in sophistication, and intensify. As the industry is still relatively nascent, it is important to identify the threat scenarios and familiarize ourselves with reputable providers  and when possible, trial the products.

Reputable equipment manufacturers are a good place to obtain advice on best practices of installation and monitoring. Manufacturers with certifications such as UK Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) are a good place to start.

Adding counter drone security to the existing systems will assist with drone disruptions

Oleg Vornik is the CEO of DroneShield (ASX:DRO), a world leader in counterdrone solutions. He is an experienced senior executive with experience at the Royal Bank of Canada, Brookfield, Deutsche Bank and ABN AMRO. Prior to becoming the CEO of DroneShield, he was its Chief Financial Officer. He holds a BSc (Mathematics) and BCom (Hons) from University of Canterbury, New Zealand and has completed a business program with Columbia University in New York. Vornik has led DroneShield for approximately 5 years, from the early start up stage, through its IPO and to growth to over 100 countries globally today.

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