Gatwick Drones Expose Another Asymmetric Threat That Airports, Airlines Are Hard-Pressed To Handle
The world got a nasty foretaste Thursday of how new technologies can be used to dramatically disrupt air travel after someone brought London’s Gatwick airport to a complete stop by flying drones intermittently over the airport’s lone runway.
Air traffic at other London Airports, including Heathrow, Europe’s biggest and busiest hub, also was disrupted for a while over fears the drone operator or operators might be mounting a coordinated effort against all five of London’s commercial airports.
The saga began around 9 p.m. London time on Wednesday night when sightings of at least one drone over the Gatwick runway, were reported. Air traffic controllers and Gatwick authorities immediately shut down aircraft operations there for fear that a collision very near the ground between a drone and large airliner packed with passengers could cause a deadly disaster. Early Thursday morning officials reopened the runway briefly before additional drone sightings triggered a complete shutdown of Gatwick operation that continued late into the night Thursday. Officials said Thursday evening that Gatwick could – and perhaps even likely would – be shut down today if the drone operator or operators could not be located and made to stop. Through Thursday night Gatwick authorities estimated that 120,000 people had had their travel plans disrupted by the drone event.
British police and military members were brought into to help locate and, potentially, to shoot down drones after technical experts quickly determined that they lack the technology to locate and knock out small drones. According to reports, the drones sighted are larger than the hobbyist drones found in toy stores and on toy and hobby websites. But they are not believed to be large enough or sophisticated enough to be classified as military drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles. Rather, officials believe the drones spotted at Gatwick fall into a category of remotely piloted aircraft used for commercial purposes like mapping, surveying, professional photography and industrial and agricultural inspections.
But whatever the drones’ size, and whoever operates them, the Gatwick drones are a chilling example of the kind of asymmetric threats against which aviation and other security-sensitive industries are inherently vulnerable. In the hands of malicious bad actors or potentially even terrorists the small, relatively inexpensive drones can cause tremendous amounts of economic and personal disruption to hundreds of thousands of people – or more – without actually ever striking a blow. Their mere presence in the operating area of an airport can trigger major flight disruptions, as happened at Gatwick.
Additionally, they could be used to spy on, damage or even destroy key infrastructure like power stations, bridges or even buildings should they be used to deliver be equipped with eavesdropping and video gear or, worse, bombs or other sorts of weapons. And, again, they can cause significant problems without striking a blow against such targets just by showing up and forcing operators of those facilities to muster an expensive and disruptive response.
For years aviation and airport security experts have fretted about asymmetrical threats that cannot be met, practically or effectively, by countermeasures that would be cceptable to the public.
Although the first recorded hijacking of a flight occurred in 1928 and hijacks occurred occasionally in every decade thereafter, hijackings became a frequent and major threat in the late 1960s and 1970s. In response security officials and governments introduced magnetometers at airports around the world, through which travelers had to pass to reach their gates. The machines, while not perfect, helped curtail the use of weapons to commandeere commercial planes.
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, airport security measures were beefed up with more aggressive screening, newer and better screening technology and the creation of watch lists of people with possible terror connections created largely by unprecedented use of intelligence resources for that purpose. Later, after the infamous shoe bomber incident, travelers began being required to remove their shoes, belts and certain other items to pass through airport security checkpoints. And the threat of chemical weapons being used in flight led to the banning of liquids being carried onboard in bottles containing more than 4 ounces.
Still, security experts worried then – and continue to worry – about weak points outside the secure areas of an airport where people tend to gather, like curbside drop off and pick up points and airport parking lots. Now, the Gatwick drone sightings suggest that the distance from which bad actors can strike against aviation assets – or other convenient, critical or symbolic targets – is much greater than previously understood.
In the United States local, state and federal law officers do not have authority to shoot down drones near airports, although there are relatively new regulations against flying them near airports and runways. Operators flying drones inside those limits can be fined.
Officers in Britain have now been given the go ahead to shoot down any drones they see near Gatwick or other airports. But police experts say the task is neither easy nor necessarily safe. Because drones fly within a few hundred feet of the ground any bullets that miss – and there’s a high probability of misses – potentially could end up hitting someone’s property nearby. Worse stray bullets could end of hitting a bystander thousands of feet, or even a mile away, though the statistical chances of that happening are quite small.
While British troops have been brought in to help search and guard Gatwick and other British airports, there are constitutional, statutory and practical limits on what U.S. troops – or even local police – could do in a similar case here.
More vexing still is how to deal with the mere threat of drones being operated near an airport. No one at this point even knows whether the Gatwick drone sightings were different reports of a single drone or of multiple drones. Because those sightings have happened several times randomly over a period of more than 24 hours it is apparent the drone operator or operators are trying, successfully, to instill panic among the populace and to disrupt airport and airline operations, causing great business and personal costs. Now, suppose the Gatwick drones disappear for several weeks, or even months, only to reappear at some future point. The message would clear: the threat is ever-present even if the drones aren’t.
Yet there is no clear and ready solution to address such a threat and such tactics. Technology could be deployed to detect and locate the source of drone control signals, but an operator could disappear quickly before officials could reach the operator’s location. And such detection and tracking technology, which isn’t cheap, would have to be deployed at every commercial airport in the nation, and operated by trained technicians backed up by officers prepared to respond quickly to any detected operators on virtually a 24/7 basis. For cost, staffing and practicality reasons none of that is likely to happen soon, if ever.
Thus airports – and other important locations like major pieces of infrastructure, government facilities and symbolically meaningful buildings or sites – will remain vulnerable to threats posed by drones or other pieces of inexpensive technology originally intended for good purposes being used by bad actors.