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Discussion point: what to do about drones being used to disrupt air travel?

According to the BBC, ‘persons of interest’ have been identified as responsible for flying the drone or drones that shut down Gatwick airport. As it gradually became clear that this was going on too long to be the work of careless hobbyists or malicious pranksters, the profile of the crime (it disrupted air travel but did not kill anyone) made me think that “climate justice” activists might be responsible. The BBC article says that is indeed one of the lines of enquiry being pursued. Still, let us be no more hasty to jump to conclusions or to blame every environmentalist in existence for the possible crimes of one of their number than we would like them to be next time someone loosely describable as “on our side” commits a crime.

The more urgent problem is that now whoever it was has demonstrated the method, anyone can copy it.

Technically and legally what can be done to stop a repetition? What should be done? What should not be? If you are one of those who have enjoyed flying drones in a responsible manner, or who is developing ways to use drones for emergency or commercial use, start work on your arguments now, because, trust me, the calls to BAN ALL DRONES NOW are going to be loud.

34 comments to Discussion point: what to do about drones being used to disrupt air travel?

  • XC

    We’ve been talking about this for years, I’m startled that they don’t have directed net launchers to knock those things out of the air near ground. Seems like a very do-able science project.

    How they plan to clean the skies at 10K feet I have not clue.

    Back in the olden days we lost a prime RC glider field because we were a tad bit too close to a small VFR airport. Today’s drones are much more capable than the toys we had. Again, the science of intercepting a passenger plan seems pretty trivial.

    Hard problem to solve!

    -XC

  • Ian

    A friend of mine owns one of the major drone companies in the UK, and we were having this discussion the other day at the pub. The consensus, as I recall it, was that directed-energy weapons are the best bet in civilian airspace. The idea is that you fry the circuitry so that it drops from the sky, like an EMP blast but obviously in a focused and controlled manner. There are a few of these types of weapons in the anti-missile arena, and I’m guessing something like that could be adapted for use around airports. Reports are that the MoD are involved now, so perhaps this’ll happen. Eventually, with sensor integration it might be able to operate like, e.g., the Phalanx CIWS to shoot down drones automatically or with minimal human intervention. Given the terrorist threat, maybe we’ll see a lot of these dotted around London eventually, and I imagine BAe are licking their lips.

    Of course using a projectile weapon would be much cheaper, but would require something like this.

  • Surellin

    The tech was demonstrated by a couple of US Army enlisted men a few years ago. Not an Army program, more of a personal hobby. They essentially shot an EMP pulse out of a rifle-like device, dropped the drone dead. Wouldn’t be too hard to have EMP “artillery” at an airport.

  • Stonyground

    I was thinking that a shot gun would probably do the trick.

  • Ian

    I was thinking that a shot gun would probably do the trick.

    Range is an issue there, but there are other problems. El Reg did an article covering a lot of possible ideas, though it’s an indictment of how bad things have gotten over there that they didn’t think of directed-energy weapons – Lewis Page would never have missed that.

  • Mr Ed

    First of all, the police response seems to have been the typical British police response, as Mark Steyn, I’m told put it: “Everything is policed, except crime”. Doing nothing except perhaps putting on hi-viz jackets. Given that airport security is hardly new, it seems that at Britain’s second-largest airport, security is a laughing stock, but it’s no laughing matter. I can’t help wonder if the drone were broadcasting ‘hate speech’, it might have been taken down forthwith. We had some (probably true but ludicrous) excuses put around, stray bullets are too much of a risk, and the police and Army aren’t trained to use shotguns (which seems to be the obvious firearm to use), so we’ll sit around and wait. It’s as if they were the Lake Men facing Smaug without Bard’s insight.

    If the drone were radio-controlled, then surely the transmitter could be tracked or jammed (“we don’t have a licence to jam and it might affect someone’s wifi“). It it was autonomous, it could have been brought down by a kamikaze drone, or a net, or the wash of a helicopter. I saw no sign of any police sweep of the airport perimeter or use of a helicopter with thermal imaging looking for someone outside, perhaps that was tried, or was ‘too dangerous’. I would have thought that some form of ‘maser’ might be developed to knock out the circuitry and bring the things down.

    Just as well Goering didn’t have drones in 1940, I can just see an ARP Hodges type figure (a forerunner of today’s ‘elf ‘n safety’ types, trying to tell Dowding it wasn’t safe to scramble a few Hurricanes if one was over Manston.

    More importantly, the perpetrator(s) should face charges of causing a public nuisance or conspiracy, common law offences that carry a maximum life sentence, not a poxy 5-year sentence. And anyone who has funded them or aided them should be charged as well.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-6519211/The-2-6m-Israeli-Drone-Dome-Army-used-defeat-Gatwick-UAV.html

    The Army used a cutting-edge Israeli anti-drone system to defeat the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that brought misery to hundreds of thousands of people at Gatwick airport.

    The British Army bought six ‘Drone Dome’ systems for £15.8 million in 2018 and the technology is used in Syria to destroy ISIS UAVs.

    Police had been seen on Thursday with an off-the-shelf DJI system that tracks drones made by that manufacturer and shows officers where the operator is (DJI is the most popular commercial drone brand.)

    However, the drone used at Gatwick is thought to have been either hacked or an advanced non-DJI drone, which rendered the commercial technology used by the police useless.

    At that point, the Army’s ‘Drone Dome’ system made by Rafael was called in. Details of the system are publicly available.

    Army officers use a high-tech radar and a laser rangefinder to locate drones within a 2.1 and 6.2 miles radius.

    Once the system has a lock on the drone, a radio frequency jammer is then used to overload the drone with signals – knocking out the commands from the unknown owner.

    This can be used to make a ‘soft-kill’ and cease control of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and land it safely.

    The system also comes with a high-powered laser which can make a ‘hard-kill’ on drones by effectively melting them, but the British Army did not buy this version.

  • Rob Fisher

    I quite like the drama of the drone-vs-drone combat with nets idea here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=130&v=jlGdPrhRvBA

    There is a thing called Drone Shield Tactical Drone Gun, which looks a bit like a cheaper version of the Drone Dome sytem the Mail reports the army using.

    But if directed energy weapons work at sufficient range then it would seem to be best. Jamming would only work on non-autonomous drones.

    Incidentally, the news reporting around this Gatwick Drone has been exceptionally free from real information even by usual MSM standards. We still don’t know how many drones there were, or have more than a single video of it in the Daily Mail (that could have been taken anywhere). And I don’t think the Army did “defeat” it, as Shlomo posts above. It seems to have gone away of its own accord.

  • Jim

    The main problem with drones is that they are treated like aircraft, ie you can fly them over private land without permission. But unlike aircraft they are not controlled in any way via registration and licensing. They are supposed to not be flown within certain distances of private dwellings, but given the digital imaging technology available today those distances are a joke, and they are a voyeurs dream, not to mention ideal for criminals to scout out properties to burgle.

    Make it that they can only be flown with the land owners permission, and allow private landowners to destroy any trespassing drones and the problem largely goes away, as no one other than people with legitimate businesses will have anywhere to fly them.

  • Skippy Tony

    Is it just me…..
    Why not legislate that the radio frequencies that can be used by the drone controllers do not cross over with any key military or civil frequencies. So there is a known spectrum to deal with, yes?
    Then either put signal activated jammers around the airport or have them on all the time.
    Why would this not work? I have to say I don’t know how hard it would be to alter the frequencies in the control unit.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Drones are not the problem, it is the people controlling them. I am sure the police/army/security could have taken measures to prevent or disable the drones quickly, but that does not remove the person controlling it. Any major group would have enough funds to bust several thousand pounds on a drone and be willing to lose it.

    I suspect the police know who they are, they just need to catch them in the act. There are only a limited number of heartless b*stards who are going to do something like this.

  • bobby b

    “Why not legislate that the radio frequencies that can be used by the drone controllers do not cross over with any key military or civil frequencies. So there is a known spectrum to deal with, yes?”

    Given the size and sophistication of the drones involved, they’re already spending thousands on them, so it would be a trivial and expected matter to spend a little more to use improper frequencies, and perhaps redundant sets of frequencies, for buzzing airports. It takes them out of the quick-and-easy jamming setup, and makes scanning for the transmissions tougher.

    It would also get them an administrative ticket for improper frequency use if they get caught, but that’s probably low on their list of worries compared to the huge felonies.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    The whole thing is vaguely ridiculous. As has already been mentioned, shooting the things is not particularly challenging. (A rifle could be workable if it’s out of shotgun range, though shotguns have a bit of an advantage and you’ll need a skilled marksman.) You can also just fly another drone into a drone and both will crash pretty fast.

    Equally to the point, there’s little to no evidence the drone was an actual threat to aviation safety; everyone seems to have panicked because of the “any time something odd happens we must shut down everything in sight immediately” policy that all law enforcement agencies seem to have adopted. The thing probably carried nothing more threatening than a camera, and probably weighs just a couple of kilograms at most; the scope of the damage it could cause is limited. There was a decision made to inconvenience tens of thousands of people over what amounts to a prank.

  • Bruce

    Quite a few airports globally are armed to the teeth with shotguns, for the specific purpose of “scaring” wild birds away from the runways, especially at the approaches. The normal ammo is the quaintly-named “Bird-Frite” which launches essentially an air-burst projectile that the birds are not supposed to like. Excessively recalcitrant avians are occasionally surprised when, between the noise-makers, clouds of BBs or No4s appear out of the blue.

    A “drone” at anything above 120ft is outside basic 12gauge range. Hosing the sky with more effective rifle bullets would create a few hazards along the lines of “what goes up, must come down”.

    Kamikaze counter-drones make a lot more sense, especially if the intruder is captured more-or-less intact. One final caveat is the desirability of bringing down any such feral drones in ONE PIECE. Not just for “further study” but because Foreign Object Damage is a bitch, as is the time-consuming effort to clean it up.

  • decnine

    If anyone is convicted for this, I’d like to see the insurance companies which have had to pay out for ‘disruption’ sue the culprits into oblivion for the civil wrong they have inflicted. It would probably deter would be copycats as well as being well deserved retribution.

  • Mr Ed:“…and the police and Army aren’t trained to use shotguns…”

    But the police ARE trained to use shotguns:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_police_firearms_in_the_United_Kingdom#Shotguns

  • 1) Some of the people who recently recreated the Battle of Britain in miniature would probably adore the chance to fly their model spitfires against evil environmentalist drones. 🙂

    2) Shlomo quoted the Daily Mail:

    The system also comes with a high-powered laser which can make a ‘hard-kill’ on drones by effectively melting them, but the British Army did not buy this version.

    I predict the Israeli manufacturers will have a happy Christmas in one sense at least 🙂 – I think their prospects of making a sale just rose dramatically (which, as the environmentalists are probably all BDS types is good news in two ways).

    3) Mr Ed quoted Mark Steyn:

    Everything is policed, except crime.

    The spectacle of police incompetence shown is educational (and I hope will educate the British public) but after 13 years of Labour followed by 8 years of May and then Rudd, it’s no great surprise.

    4) Idea: operate the airport as usual, and announce loudly that any drones will be treated as premeditated first-degree murder attempts. This will not deter Islamicists (to whom the environmentalists, aided by government ineptness, have given ideas) but it will solve the environmentalist problem one way or another. (Yes, I know it would require a courage our government lacks, but I’ll bet there were enough passengers in Gatwick who would have risked it by the middle of yesterday to make up a flight or several).

  • Ian

    …announce loudly that any drones will be treated as premeditated first-degree murder attempts.

    Sadly the best we can hope is that the police plant a hurty tweet on their twitter account.

  • From the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990:

    1 Endangering safety at aerodromes […] (2)It is also, subject to subsection (4) below, an offence for any person by means of any device, substance or weapon unlawfully and intentionally— […] (b)to disrupt the services of such an aerodrome

    (5)A person who commits an offence under this section is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life

    Best regards

  • staghounds

    I suspect that there’s a politically correct motivation exception to that law.

  • pete

    This matter has nothing to do with drone hobbyists.

    The vast majority of drone enthusiasts are wonderful people who are law abiding and add to the diversity of our country.

    When I mention this matter in future I will sympathise with the delayed passengers but I won’t mention drone operators at all so that I don’t encourage bigots to discriminate against them.

    That’s all from me as I am off to get a tattoo to show how much I care about those who had cancelled flights.

  • Tedd

    Airports already use predator birds to keep other birds away from the planes. Presumably, predator drones could be used to keep other drones away.

    Seizing control of the drone, if practical, seems to be the best option. Shooting them down (either by in-air destruction or by EMP disabling of the on-board electronics) is obviously easier, but not a very good idea since the drone will then fall on people or property.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Seizing control of the drone, if practical, seems to be the best option.

    In this particular case, where the drone is being used to disrupt rather than damage or kill, the best option is seizing control of the drone _operator_.

  • bobby b

    I’ve always liked the idea that, when the eco-terrorists act up, we should go out and kill a few whales and burn smudge pots all over. Maybe burn some trees, let our cars idle overnight, fry up some California Delta smelt, jeer at swimming polar bears . . .

  • jmc

    The problem is not drones. The problem is the response of the management of Gatwick Airport to the common problem of drone incursions.

    Gatwick used to be owned by a company that ran airports. Then it was owned by a company that mostly ran Spanish shopping malls. But also ran Heathrow. They were forced to sell Gatwick by the government because it was “anti-competitive” to own both main airports in London. To an Amedrican private equity company who know nothing about running anything. But know quite a bit about asset stripping infrastructure companies.

    And that is the real problem. Nothing to do with drones. Rogue operated or otherwise.

  • Runcie Balspune: “In this particular case, where the drone is being used to disrupt rather than damage or kill, the best option is seizing control of the drone _operator_.”

    Or finding the nearest drone enthusiast and massively disrupting his Christmas, then when the media interview his boss who gives him an alibi say ‘Oopsie! Our bad!’, with no fear whatsoever of being held accountable for it.

  • Mr Ed

    JuliaM

    I based my comment on some media reports that police would not use shotguns as it was outside their training parameters, e.g. I suspect that this is as there no immediate risk to life (as the ‘planes are grounded – ha! and they don’t have control of where the stray ammo falls). Never mind that shotgun ammo falls harmlessly if fired upwards.

    And yes, a wrongful arrest case seems pretty unanswerable from what I know, here is a recent Court of Appeal case on wrongful arrest, involving the entertainer Michael Barrymore, grim facts, it looks to me as if the reasoning here would be applicable. Also vs. the media, a privacy case might be runnable.

    jmc

    I think that your comment has some truth to it, there does seem to be something of a problem in some areas in current UK business culture, I recall that when the company that runs the Alton Towers theme park severed a young woman’s leg with a malfunctioning rollercoaster, I expected the engineering director would be fired and the main witness in the ‘health and safety’ violation trial as the company faced a fine. It turned out AFAICS that they didn’t have an engineering director postion on the board, despite their business being people riding on machines that need maintenance.

  • Ian

    And yes, a wrongful arrest case seems pretty unanswerable from what I know, here is a recent Court of Appeal case on wrongful arrest, involving the entertainer Michael Barrymore, grim facts, it looks to me as if the reasoning here would be applicable. Also vs. the media, a privacy case might be runnable.

    Clearly you haven’t read the case to which you refer.

  • Mr Ed

    Ian,

    Yes I have, what a ridiculous counter-factual assertion.

  • Ian (December 25, 2018 at 12:29 am), I have to agree with Mr Ed (December 25, 2018 at 11:56 am), that your comment was content-free. If you feel there is reason to see the arrested couple as suspicious despite the trend of the latest coverage, you need to explain why (or link to the story you feel Mr Ed should have read).

    I was immensely unimpressed by the couple’s (reported) claim that they needed and are receiving medical (I assume they mean counselling) help after being questioned by British police; it had a real feel of, “Well, the Battle of Britain generation has indeed passed away.” However if – as seems to be the case – the police ignored the old formula of “A man and a women are now helping police with their enquiries” and rushed their names to the press, then I fear the police maintained the appearance of folly that has marked their handling of the case to date.

  • Mr Ed

    There are not, it seems, any vacanies in senior positions at Sussex Police this evening, despite the following quoted in The Telegraph from the employer of the arrested man

    Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, John Allard, Mr Gait’s employer, said that the investigation had been handled “appallingly” and should now be taken over by a different force.

    Describing Sussex Police’s approach as a “complete overreaction”, he added: “[They] had to seem like they were doing something…they have to find a scapegoat somehow and unfortunately it’s somebody who would not harm a fly.

    “Paul works as part of three man team who were all on site working on a project in Groombridge, Kent. We could have proven where he was. But from when he was arrested on Friday evening until now, I have had no contact from Sussex Police at all. Nothing.”

  • Paul Marks

    If the drones are real – shoot them down. If airports do not have the hardware to do that – they should.

    Finis.

  • […] up, something topical, which Maplins in Tottenham Court Road was trying to sell as a Christmas present in December […]

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