DroneGate: Here's What Really Needs To Be Done To Prevent Another Gatwick
The former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once famously spoke of there being known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. All three variations apply in the aftermath of DroneGate, which saw London’s Gatwick Airport spinning into chaos with 1,000 flights cancelled or diverted across three days starting on December 21 as a result of illegal drone activity. While the U.K. Ministry of Defence has now stood down the Royal Air Force counter-drone capabilities that had been deployed at Gatwick Airport in response, the question remains of how do you solve a problem like DroneGate?
Gatwick Airport Limited has invested a reported £5 million on anti-drone defensive systems in order to prevent a repeat of the DroneGate attacks. Gatwick Airport, owned and managed by Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), has declined to comment on what the money has actually bought or how these systems will work. Although anti-drone equipment was deployed by the RAF, it is not known if the ‘military-grade’ solutions purchased by Gatwick Airport will be the same or, indeed, what those RAF solutions even were. Although it has been widely reported that the Israeli ‘Drone Dome’ defensive shield technology was being deployed, the BBC reports that “the MoD is still waiting to receive the equipment and an alternative system has been used at Gatwick.” Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited is also reported to be to have invested millions in similar anti-drone technology to protect Heathrow Airport, the second busiest in the world. Once again though, there is no official indication of what this technological solution includes or how it is being deployed.
A spokeswoman for Gatwick Airport told the Guardian newspaper that it’s solution “provided a similar level of protection” to the military-grade defense operated by the RAF and that it “had installed it about a week ago.” The same newspaper report says that Heathrow Airport’s spokeswoman confirmed that it had made an “investment in military-grade anti-drone equipment” for that airport. Whether this refers to Rafael’s ‘Drone Dome’ counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS), six units of which were procured by the U.K. Ministry of Defence for £15.8 million back in August, but which have yet to be delivered, remains unclear.
According to Jane’s the Drone Dome C-UAS system purchased by the U.K. includes radar detection, electro-optical identification and communication jamming capabilities but falls short of the full system specification that has ‘hard-kill’ laser weaponry to shoot down rogue drones. That this hard-kill capability is not present in the U.K. Drone Dome tech comes as something of a surprise to be honest. While it is notoriously difficult to shoot down drones that are actively evading such an outcome, the Drone Dome lasers offer a good balance between likelihood of strike and minimal collateral damage it seems to me. Live fire, of the bullet variety, is a different matter and I wouldn’t expect to see that option executed outside of the theatre of war. Writing for Forces.net, technology expert David Hambling points out that in the case of Gatwick Airport, “there is a significant chance that a bullet falling at random will hit a building, vehicle or even a person.” Firing hundreds or thousands of bullets to create a ‘wall of fire’ as U.S. Army guidance on Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System Techniques recommends would, as Hambling says, “almost guarantee an accident.”
Of course, focusing the debate on airports is risking missing the much bigger picture here: how do you protect both critical infrastructure and ordinary citizens from drone-based terrorist attacks? As Forbes contributor Zak Doffman writes, “Terrorist attacks on western soil using drones would be more straightforward and effective on mass gatherings in open public spaces.” Not forgetting, of course, that the threat to aircraft does not start and finish in the airport. “There has been a 168% increase in drone and plane near-misses over the last recorded two-year period” reports Forbes contributor Heather Farmbrough, who continues, “In October 2018, a Virgin Atlantic B787-9 jet narrowly missed a collision with a drone by just 20 feet, according to the pilots’ report. The aircraft was flying at 3,200 feet above the residential London district of Clapham on its approach to Heathrow.”
So what is the answer, is it purely technological or must it include legislative and regulatory elements? On the technology side of the fence there are options such as the Titan system from Citadel Defense which uses machine learning to implement an advanced control signal jamming system that can effectively trap single drone targets and swarm attacks minimal disruption to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communications in the vicinity. Then there’s the DroneTracker system from Dedrone that can detect, classify and track drones which can be used in conjunction with the Battelle DroneDefender to bring targeted drones down safely.
Legislatively speaking, things are also in the pipeline. The U.K. Government has concluded a consultation exercise exploring policy for drone usage and enforcement. Proposed policies include a minimum age requirement for operators, extending the 1km flight restriction around airports, the provision on new powers to enable law enforcement and other bodies to properly police drone use and a mandated Flight Information and Notification System (FINS) for drones. Meanwhile, the Drone (Regulation) Bill 2017-19 has its second reading in the House of Commons on February 15th. If passed into law this would regulate the purchase and use of drones weighing 5kg or more. Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet, makes the case for a national drone registry that goes beyond a list of registrations and instead creates a dynamic database that authorizes drone flights in real time. Like other aircraft, drones would then require explicit permission before they could legally take off. “The government’s Drone Bill will hopefully start to tackle this” Haworth says, concluding “we have proof of concept models for a drone registry and are keen to work with others to develop this to protect the public, commercial and government against malicious drone usage.”
Not everyone is a fan of more regulation in the drone zone though.
Take Geoff Pugh, general manager at drone-training company Consortiq, and formerly serving in the Royal Navy and Civilian Aviation Authority, who today told me that he doesn’t think more legislative and regulatory restrictions are the answer. “People intent on engaging in deliberate criminal acts do not follow the law” Pugh points out, continuing “further restrictions will also alienate the 4,500+ legitimate drone users who use their devices safely and legally for commercial purposes.” He thinks that the answer sits firmly with airports and U.K. plc implementing a concerted and coordinated plan to invest in drone detection systems around national infrastructure sites and areas of key importance. “This combined with the rollout of an ‘Unmanned Traffic Management’ system that ties into U.K. airspace” Pugh argues, “will enable airports and other sites to utilize drones for their business benefits whilst still being able to detect and respond to any potential threats.” These technologies are both currently available and mature enough to be deployed immediately according to Pugh. Anne Sheehan, enterprise director at Vodafone which developed the world’s first IoT drone tracking and safety technology, as well as flying the first drone over a 4G network control, agrees that the transition from consumer toy to commercial service requires “a step-change in tracking and accuracy to protect our critical infrastructure.” Sheehan argues that Vodafone, with the largest block of contiguous 5G spectrum to ensure little or no time lag, is ideally placed to support new services like these as they come online.
All that said, some security experts still maintain that the problem with drones can only be solved with regulation. In conversation earlier today with Professor Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE and Professor of cybersecurity at Ulster University, he told me that “regulations mean government restrictions on consumer drones entering the marketplace without proper geo-flight zone restrictions embedded in firmware.” Ben Marcus, the co-founder and chairman of AirMap, a global airspace management platform for drones, would seem to agree. He thinks that “a lot can be done to reduce the risks of drone incursions to a much more manageable level that only require implementation of basic regulation such as electronic registration remote identification (ID) and tracking for authorities to prevent the careless and clueless from acting criminally.” He points to how digital flight authorization for drones in the U.S. has already been deployed successfully and helps validate operational intent in controlled airspace. “The Federal Aviation Administration has proven this with LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) which AirMap is providing to drone operators routinely” Marcus says. He also points to India where the Digital Sky regulation enforces the use of technologies such as electronic registration, airspace authorization and geofencing to enforce civil aviation regulations. “Specifically their No Permission, No Take-off (NPNT) rule is a big step forward” Marcus concludes, “to create an environment where drone usage is supervised with unmanned traffic management technologies already available.”
The notion of geo-tagged, and therefore trackable, drones straight from the factory floor isn’t blue sky thinking either. Chinese drone manufacturer DJI Technology already has such technology in its AeroScope product. This provides location and serial number information for DJI drones to law enforcement, national security and aviation safety officials. However, the glaring hole in this particular solution is that it only works with DJI-manufactured drones. “Drone manufacturers have to ship drones with geo zone restrictions” Prof. Curran insists, continuing “a national drone flight authority can provide an oversight as to which locations are eligible for enforcing these flight restrictions.”
And finally, I must mention one more conversation I had today which served to remind me that the problem of rogue drones extends further than the physical dangers presented in no-fly zones. Daniel Couzens, director of PR company OneChocolate Comms, told me he thinks it also embraces misinformation and paranoia. “As the Gatwick incident suggested in its on-off nature, the problem may have been exacerbated by how hard it is to properly identify and communicate the scale of the threat” Couzens said, concluding, “without wanting to blow my tarnished, buckled trumpet, good public communications and efforts to shut down misinformation needs to be part of any strategy to deal with drones, real or imagined…”