Anti-drone technology experts warn the recent flight disruption at Gatwick and Heathrow could just be "the tip of the iceberg" in the security threat of a growing commercial drone market
After commercial drones caused significant flight disruption at London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports, the aviation industry and other vulnerable sectors have begun investing in new anti-drone technology. Sam Forsdick speaks to experts about the security threat and what counter-drone strategies involve
Until recently, remote-controlled drones bought off the shelf at electronics retailers were a largely harmless gadget most often used for capturing wide-angle video footage and aerial photography.
But when two of London’s major airports were brought to a standstill following the sightings of unmanned aerial vehicles in their airspace, the public perception of this technology took a turn.
Despite weighing roughly 1.5kg and being available from some stores for less than £100, drones are able to create chaos – the cost of which can run into millions of pounds.
The grounding of flights at Gatwick from 19 to 21 December caused more than 1,000 flights to be delayed or cancelled, affecting an 140,000 passengers and costing airlines an estimated £20m.
On 8 January, a copycat crime saw flights at Heathrow held for one hour.
The threat of drones to the aviation industry is a very real one, believes Robert Garbett, CEO at Drone Major Group, a drone and counter-drone consultancy company.
“Virtually every one of the world’s commercial airports and leading destinations currently remain vulnerable to criminal abuse or ‘rogue’ operation of drone technology,” he says.
Airports investing in anti-drone technology
Heathrow and Gatwick have reportedly invested millions in anti-drone technology following the two incidents.
The equipment was said to be an equivalent level to that used by the Armed Forces, and the increase in exposure could create the foundations for a burgeoning counter-drone tech sector.
Mr Garbett says: “The commercial air drone market is currently still like the Wild West.
“It’s exciting, and represents unprecedented economic opportunity for companies and organisations that are fast adopting this technology.
“However, there will always be those who would flaunt laws and regulation to cause maximum disruption around the world.
“This particularly impacts on more vulnerable locations such as airports, financial centres, energy facilities, stadiums and concert venues, which require tailored defence strategies to protect against what is a new and real security challenge.
“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, putting in place more sophisticated counter-drone strategies.”
Which anti-drone technology and strategies are currently available?
The anti-drone market is already expanding, with several companies across the world offering different strategies to counter the threat of drones.
MyDefence, based in Denmark, offers a range of anti-drone technology for both military and civilian clients.
It has helped protect government buildings, prisons, airports and critical infrastructure, such as a power plants, from the threat of drones.
MyDefence managing director Christian Steinø says: “We have designed and developed what is commonly known as RF (radio frequency) technology, and have spent a lot of time and effort developing RF detectors that can detect drones with high confidence and very low false alarm rates.”
The MyDefence system is able to sense the radio signals sent between the drone and the operator.
Once detected, a smart jamming signal can be sent out to disrupt the drone and will either stop it in its tracks, send it back to its owner or deactivate it completely.
The company has received increasing interest in its products following the recent flight disruption and even offers a system tailored to airports.
Mr Steinø says: “Our sensors are networkable and, taking an airport as an example, that means we can deploy our sensors around the perimeter or along an approach corridor.”
Could drones cause a plane to crash?
Being a former commercial pilot himself, Mr Steinø can attest to the damage drones can have on airlines.
He says: “A recent study from the US Federal Aviation Administration concluded that if you take a drone and a bird of the same size and weight, the drone will cause more damage because of the metal and hard plastics that can damage the fan blades of the engine.
“It won’t down a large commercial aircraft but it can do some damage to the skin, wings, or in the worst case, the engine. That can be very costly for an airline.”
Although the threat to airports is more of a financial one at the moment, it is possible that bigger drones could cause a crash.
“Farmers are using drones as crop dusters and they are considerably larger than the hobby drones people are using,” Mr Steinø adds.
“If one of those collided with an aircraft, then you have a big problem. They could probably down a civilian airliner.
“Some of the military airports are more at risk because they fly a lot faster than the civilian aircraft and if they take a hit it could be fatal.
“This is just the beginning – there is still more work to be done.”
Drones could be used by terrorists
MyDefence was one of several companies to be awarded funding under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, which has so far awarded more than 30bn euros (£27bn) to research and innovation projects.
The Danish company was awarded more than 1.25m euros (£1.11m) by the EU to create a scalable drone alarm and protection system, dubbed KNOX.
One of the main concerns is the use of drones for terrorist attacks.
Mr Steinø says: “The drone is a perfect terror weapon, it’s cheap, can attack quickly and can cause a lot of damage.
“For the project, we are specifically looking at sport arenas, for instance football stadiums.
“How can we protect an open arena? It is a very challenging environment because of the big audience and the number of people using radio communication.”
Sports stadiums could be the next target for drones
Two stadiums are now participating in the research project and Mr Steinø believes sports stadiums could be a target for other illicit drone activity.
Such a threat is not entirely without precedent, as Nigel Wilson, of Bingham, Nottinghamshire, was fined £1,800 in September 2015 after admitting nine breaches of flying drones over football grounds during matches and tourist attractions in Britain the previous year.
District Judge Quentin Purdy told the then 42-year-old an accident could have occurred “simply by a gust of wind or something of that nature taking it out of your control”.
There is also an issue with broadcasting rights, as Mr Steinø says: “Production companies such as Sky pay for the rights to broadcast certain matches and have the exclusive rights to produce live footage.
“But other people could directly broadcast footage from a drone to a streaming platform if the stadium was not protected.”
Spying and espionage are other illicit uses of commercial drones.
He adds: “It could be that Game of Thrones is filming in Ireland and suddenly the drones come to take paparazzi pictures.
“It could be car factories that have company secrets stolen by competitors who fly drones over their test-track.
“It’s going to be a growing industry and more anti-drone technology is going to be needed. I think we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”