With anti-drone tech on the market, why was Gatwick Airport so unprepared?

Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
December 21, 2018

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The audacity of the perpetrator (or perpetrators) was breath-taking.

From petty theft to bank heists, lawbreakers have, for time immemorial, acted as quickly as possible to secure their goal, cover their tracks and flee the crime scene.

But the mischief-makers who repeatedly flew drones into the exclusion zone around Gatwick Airport between Wednesday night and Thursday morning were intent on making their point – whatever that turns out to be – over and over again. There were more than 50 sightings of their drone in the 24 hours from when the runway was first closed.

(This is all assuming there were actually any drones in the first place of course.)

But if their actions suggested they were blithe about the risk of being caught, they have so far been vindicated.

Ranged against the rogue drone pilot(s) were: airport security with its enormous security budget, the police and military, with the government fully engaged (well, as fully engaged as it can be as Brexit dominates parliament). And yet the drone(s) was/were never destroyed or disabled and it took nearly 36 hours before Gatwick could run even limited flights.

Gatwick chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said the airport was reopened after putting in place “additional mitigating measures,” provided by military and government agencies.

Those measures, the nature of which he wouldn’t specify, came too late for around 120,000 passengers who were left stranded at airports with holidays truncated and facing hotel, parking and transport costs, with limited scope for getting compensation.

As it emerged that a range of anti-drone technology exists, there has been disbelief that Gatwick Airport has been left impotent

As it emerged that a range of anti-drone technology exists, there has been disbelief – and outright frustration for stranded passengers – that Gatwick Airport had been left impotent.

Dedrone is just one of many companies offering solutions that can detect, disable and destroy rogue drones – jamming signals, using lasers, infecting them with malware or even catching them in a net.

DroneTracker software from the company (which is exhibiting at IFSEC International in London in June) processes and evaluates radio frequency signals emitted by drones and automatically triggers alarms to alert security staff. The platform can also alert an airport when a drone enters protected airspace and track the drone’s flight path to locate and apprehend its pilot.

Given the range of counter-drone technology on the market, why did Gatwick have no measures in place?

Drones did not pose just a theoretical threat, after all.

Tests funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) found that a drone weighing 400g could smash a helicopter windscreen, while one weighing 2kg could seriously damage an airliner’s windscreen.

Near misses

There were 117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones by November this year – up from 93 for the whole of 2017 – according to the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa).

Gatwick Airport closed for around 20 minutes in 2017 amid concern that drone pilots were trying to film close encounters with aircraft. In a separate incident this summer, a drone ‘put 130 lives at risk’ after nearly hitting an aircraft approaching the airport.

In June a jumbo jet avoided crashing into a drone by just five metres – the nearest miss in British aviation history. Then in October, a drone actually collided with a commercial aircraft as it was approaching to land in Canada.

Cost is surely no excuse.

Airports have enormous security budgets and costs are surely dwarfed by the costs of closing an airport for even for a few hours, let alone days – the numbers very quickly run into six figures.

Few airports are putting counter measures into use and this is seemingly down to regulatory barriers

Perhaps the technology is dangerous or unreliable? Well several trials have been run around the world with considerable success.

In May, London Southend Airport successfully tested an anti-drone system that combines radio frequency and optical sensors to detect drones.

In 2016, the US Federal Aviation Authority trialled the Anti-UAV Defense System (Auds) system, a collaboration between British companies Enterprise, Chess Systems and Blighter. It uses high powered radio waves to disable drones, blocking their communication and switching them off in mid-air.

The Chinese-made Cangqin can monitor a low-altitude airspace five miles in diameter, and locate a drone three seconds after it enters the specified zone. It was trialled at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport in China in 2017.

Dedrone, which is running a demo at Manchester Airport with Vodafone, is already protecting the airspace of several airports around the world.

But it’s not entirely fair to blame Gatwick executives. Few airports have put counter measures into use and this is seemingly down to regulatory barriers.

Someone from Dedrone told me that “in our conversations with international and US airports, our understanding is that some federal agencies have advised airports not to adopt counter-drone solutions until they say otherwise.”

There are possible safety issues. In October 2016, the FAA sent a letter to airports warning that “unauthorized UAS detection and counter-measure deployments can create a host of problems, such as electromagnetic and Radio Frequency (RF) interference affecting safety of flight and air traffic management issues.”

And UK airports are not empowered to act unilaterally when it comes to shooting drones down – something police initially ruled out as an option at Gatwick on safety grounds but later ruled back in as a “tactical” option.

Because international aviation agencies classify a drone flying as an aircraft in flight, doing so would be seen as ‘downing an aircraft’. This means airports need sign-off from a government agency to proceed.

The UK pilots union, Balpa, has been urging the government to extend the 1km drone exclusion zone around airports introduced this year to 5km.

People flying drones weighing 250g or heavier will from from November 2019 have to take an online safety test and register with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). If this had happened sooner, might the database of registered pilots have helped police track down the culprits at Gatwick?

Perhaps bolder action might have been taken sooner were the machinery of government not almost entirely consumed by a single, interminable issue. All non-urgent parliamentary business has been delayed due to Brexit.

If you were feeling charitable you might cut governments and regulators some slack. After all, as recently as 2013 there were zero recorded drone incidents at UK airports.

Ultimately, an ancient human failing could be at play.

Governments must allocate resources between myriad evolving threats and all too often their approach is reactive, not proactive – only taking necessary action in response to expensive or tragic accidents, disasters and deliberate attacks and subsequent public outcry.

So it was that after years of campaigning by the experts it had to take the Grenfell Tower fire to do something about fire safety. The same dynamics are playing out with climate change: the problem has been apparent for decades but it’s only gradually rising up the agenda as the consequences become increasingly grave.

Thankfully, unlike Grenfell or climate change, no lives have been lost due to the Gatwick crisis. Yet the economic disruption and embarrassment to government and Gatwick’s top brass (never underestimate humiliation as a driver of human action) will surely prompt a faster, more substantial response to the problem.

In this sense, then, the prankster, protestor or whoever is responsible may have done us all a favour. Better they exposed the failings than a lone wolf terrorist.

I doubt this mitigation will influence the judge should the culprits be identified, however.

Update, 8 January 2019: Sure enough, the problem is now being prioritised with police being granted new powers to tackle drones and Gatwick spending £5m on counter-drone technology.

Dedrone is showcasing its counter-drone platform at IFSEC International at ExCeL London between 18-20 June 2019. 

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