01/05/2019 – Safety & Security / Drones

Creating a buzz – and chaos


Notwithstanding the shock wake-up calls in the form of errant-drone-induced chaos at Gatwick Airport in the UK last year, as well as a deadly exploding drone incident in Yemen in January, virtually every one of the world’s commercial airports and leading destinations currently remain vulnerable to the ‘rogue’ operation of drone technology, warns the head of a leading drone consultancy.


In January this year, Houthi rebels used an explosives-packed drone to target Yemen’s military leaders at an army parade, killing six soldiers and wounding several senior officers. Video of the attack showed the drone screeching down from the cloudy sky and exploding just a few metres above a ceremonial dais near the al-Anad airbase outside Aden, showering Yemeni officers with shrapnel and causing the ceremony to dissolve into chaos. Displaying a surprising level of sophistication, the drone built by the Houthi Rebels served to demonstrate the grim consequences that such devices can deliver in the wrong hands.


Yet even in peaceful jurisdictions, these buzzing robots’ potential for chaos has seemingly appeared like a bolt from the blue. The drone scare at Gatwick, which closed the world’s busiest runway for over 33 hours in December 2018 (shortly before the busy Christmas period), was estimated to cost airlines operating from the airport over £50 million (US$66m) in lost revenues from grounded flights and in associated customer welfare pay-outs. On top of that, Gatwick airport itself lost at least £15m in revenue (although some sources suggest the final figure could be twice as high), while insurance companies have inevitably faced significant claims. And to date, nobody has been charged in relation to the incident.


While authorities eventually regained control over the airfield after the Army deployed unidentified military technology (said to be the Israeli-developed Drone Dome system, which can jam communications between the drone and its operator), the vulnerability of Gatwick’s operations to such a seemingly DIY effort at disruption was nonetheless seen as positively astounding to many. 


Robert Garbett, founder and CEO of Drone Major Group – the world’s leading global drone and counter drone consultancy – says that we shouldn’t be surprised by the fiasco, although we should be alarmed, given that such ill-preparedness is likely to be the norm for airports and other venues and facilities the world over. “There remains very low awareness among the business community of the extraordinary pace at which drone technology is evolving… and this makes staying ahead of the threat posed by those who would abuse this technology challenging, for even the most competent of businesses and management teams.”


An air-borne “Wild West”


“The commercial air drone market is currently still like the Wild West…exciting, and representing unprecedented economic opportunity for companies and organisations that are fast adopting this exceptional technology,” the CEO continues. It is certainly true that the list of applications for ever-advancing drone-tech gets longer by the day – beyond the now decelerating hobbyist market and the military applications, innovative drone use extends to segments as diverse as farming, oil & gas, power transmission, search and rescue, pharma delivery and Hollywood cinematography.  


“However, there will always be those who would flaunt laws and regulation to cause maximum disruption around the world,” points out Mr Garbett. “This particularly impacts on more vulnerable sectors such as airports, financial centres, energy facilities, stadiums and concert venues, which require tailored defence strategies to protect against what is a new and very real security challenge.”


The drone consultancy executive tells us that “the British Armed Forces have been world leaders in the use of drone technology, for both offence and defence, for many years – long before the recent adoption by the business world – and it is their techniques that are now being applied, particularly in counter-drone strategies, which utilise an ever-evolving range of advanced technologies to detect, track, identify and defeat the threat posed by those who would abuse air drone technology for nefarious means.”


“Knee-jerk” approach is “rarely effective”


There are literally hundreds of counter-drone products and manufacturers worldwide, and the market is expanding on a daily basis, making it extremely difficult to keep track, observes Mr Garbett. “This is one reason why the rapid, often knee-jerk adoption of such technology in the face of media pressure, while sometimes providing a short-term fix, can often be a long-term error of judgement – and, in isolation of appropriate policies and procedures, is rarely effective.”


Garbett’s Drone Major Group ‘Counter Drone’ team – primarily ex-military – continually analyse this market to identify those systems that will be of most appropriate use to our clients in the application of both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ effect counter drone measures. “Soft effect measures include intelligence-led threat identification, robust airspace management with commensurate risk management policies and legal procedures. Hard measures are broken down into ‘Detect, Track and Identify’ and ‘Defeat’, which are subject to strict usage restrictions,” he outlines.


“One of the challenges for our clients in all sectors is the need to adopt drone technology always within a disciplined strategy that supports the organisation, ensures security and also ‘future-proofs’ what is put in place. The adoption of counter drone technology is no exception and so we would urge those organisations reacting to recent events to take a breath and think strategically.”  


Battle for the skies


“As far as criminals or ‘rogue’ drone operators are concerned, they will always exist – but their task will be made much more difficult by an increasingly informed business community, the putting in place of more sophisticated counter-drone strategies, the implementation of the forthcoming ‘Drone Bill’ within the UK and the adoption of the new aerial drone Standards which were launched for public and peer group consultation in November 2018 by the International Standards Organisation (ISO).” Final adoption of these Standards is expected in the US, UK and worldwide later this year.


Ahead of the new Drones Bill, on 13th March this year a ‘no-fly zone’ came into force in the UK, making it illegal to fly a drone within 5km of an airport or at a height of over 400ft, with major penalties for those who break the law. A week on, the UK government’s Aviation Minister Liz Sugg met with leading global drone manufacturers to discuss how to tackle criminal drone use. They discussed a range of topics including counter-drone technology and software – such as ‘geofencing’ – that could be built into drones at the point of manufacture.


Finding the legislative balance and viable counter-measures to kill the nefarious buzz without hobbling industrious growth in this flourishing segment will be easier said than done, given that drone technology not only continues to evolve but also to proliferate. A report published last year by PWC estimated that the aerial drone industry alone (excluding surface, underwater and space) would contribute £42 billion (US$55bn) to UK GDP and create 628,000 jobs in the country by 2030 – a flourishing segment not to be sniffed at. Rising in tandem, the anti-drone market is expected to grow to almost US$1.85bn by 2024, forecasts a report from Grandview Research. 


Securing vital infrastructure from drone-enabled troublemakers should be a priority for the governments and businesses in charge of such critical assets. And future-proofing protocol will likely play as important a role as technological catch-up in this new battle for the skies.

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