Rogue drones are causing havoc – what can be done about them?

by Peter Griffin / 24 January, 2019
drone gun

Is the DroneGun the answer to drone operators who fly their drones too close to airports? French President Emmanuel Macron tests one out.

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Remember the Gatwick drone debacle? Last month 130,000 travellers were disrupted at Europe’s eighth-busiest airport, after drone sightings close to its runways led to around 1,000 flights being cancelled over 36 hours.

Jetstar, the largest operator at Gatwick, claimed this week that the incident cost it £15 million, with 82,000 of those passengers scheduled to fly on its planes.

Sussex Police have identified 60 ‘persons of interest’ as part of their efforts to track down the culprits, though the investigation got off to a disastrous start in December, when they arrested a West Sussex couple on suspicion of being the drone operators but had to release them without charge.

A similar incident on Christmas Eve involving a model plane at Heathrow just continued the drone hysteria. Closer to home, the year ended with a flurry of drone incidents.

Extremely close

The Civil Aviation Authority is investigating two Auckland incidents that happened on New Year’s Eve, including a helicopter pilot’s report of seeing drones over central Auckland while filming the New Year’s fireworks display. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, a Police Eagle helicopter pilot flying at around 1,400 feet had to take evasive action to avoid collision with a drone flying over Auckland’s spaghetti junction. November saw a 30 minute shut down of the airspace at Wellington Airport after a drone was spotted “extremely close” to the runway.

The common thread to all of the reported incidents is that is incredibly difficult to confirm the drone sightings and even harder to track down the rogue operators who are breaching air safety rules.

The increasing rate of drone incidents is inevitably leading to growing calls for tighter regulations, particularly from airlines like Air New Zealand and air traffic service operator Airways New Zealand. Both organisations want to avoid the chaos and lost revenue a Gatwick-style shutdown would cause.

A compulsory registration system for all drone owners has been mooted and is indeed a measure the Civil Aviation Authority is considering. Along with that could come mandatory training, so the clueless idiots flying drones dangerously close to airfields would have absolutely no excuse for their actions.

But would compulsory registration solve the problem? Overseas experience suggests not. The US Federal Aviation Authority has a mandatory registration scheme for drone owners that comes with a $5 fee and assigns a unique number to each drone. But it hasn’t prevented continued drone incidents and hasn’t significantly aided authorities in identifying rogue drone flyers, particularly where a drone has merely been sighted, but not recovered after landing – or crashing.

Jamming the drones

Defensive measures that range from jamming the radio frequencies drones operate on, to shooting drones out of the sky, are being developed around the world for deployment at airports, prisons and military installations.

The real focus needs to be on developing technology to identify the drone operator, says Jonathan Shorer, secretary of Model Flying New Zealand, which represents 78 clubs and 2,200 members who fly model aircraft and drones.

“There are lots of drone tracking and disabling projects overseas but none that I know of looking for the operators,” says Shorer, a retired British Army officer who has mowed a model aircraft landing strip on his property to indulge his passion for flying model planes.

Jonathan Shorer.

Shorer is opposed to the “tax” that would likely come with a mandatory registration system and penalise the majority of drone operators who understand and obey the clearly laid out flight regulations.

“It’s the same lack of logic as thinking that making people get a driver’s licence and pay petrol tax will stop joyriding,” he says.

Instead, he argues, we need to innovate to come up with a way to pinpoint the ignorant or willfully negligent drone flyers.

“If it became known that the police could track you and have the cop car at the door when you landed, word would spread.  It has been done in the UK but I believe our guys don't have the equipment,” adds Shorer.

He’s not a fan of technologies aimed at taking down drones, such as the DroneGun, which its developers claim can disrupt radio frequency bands drones operate on at a range of up to one kilometre.

A drone that loses contact with its operator’s remote controller will typically descend and land or return to the “home spot” where it took off from.

“The difficulty with jamming is that drones use a common user frequency,” he points out. 

“Jam it and you take down everyone's Wi-fi, security and other radio-controlled systems.”

“Shooting stuff out of the sky is never going to be a good option in an urban area.  Everything has to land somewhere,” he adds.

Pinpointing the operators

New Zealand is considered a hotbed of development for so-called unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs). Kittyhawk, the aviation company co-owned by Google billionaire Larry Page, has been trialling its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) flying cars in the South Island. Flexible civil aviation laws led the company to undertake its research here.

Various New Zealand drone companies have been developing applications for use in agriculture. The government agency Callaghan Innovation ran the C-Prize in 2015, to seek out the best drone innovation to assist the film industry.

“Instead of putting time and resources into developing flying taxis, couldn’t we be putting some Kiwi creativity into designing a world-leading drone-tracer?” asks Shorer.

“Investing in developing this technology is not only a more logical place for our authorities to focus, but could also see New Zealand leading the world.”

Technology to accurately pinpoint wayward drone operators would certainly solve a practical problem facing authorities all over the world. But the largest drone maker in the world, Chinese company DJI, already has the technology to do so. It is a matter of applying such a system to all types of drones taking to the sky. That’s proving to be easier said than done.

DJI’s Aeroscope gadget can detect the signals sent between a DJI drone and its controller, capturing telemetry data, the serial number of the drone and the registration details of its owner. It has been trialled at some airports in the US and Europe with good reported accuracy, though extending the range of the device to cover large airfields and their flight path approaches require additional antenna to be deployed.

It would need each airport to invest in the technology, which would allow air traffic control staff to confirm the location of drones and advise pilots to take evasive action. It could also see airports handing over drone data to the police to start investigations into drone incidents.

But that would still require some registration process to tie a drone owner to their device, whether it be required by all drone manufacturers after purchase or registration with an agency like the Civil Aviation Authority. Web-based systems that would automatically upload a record of a drone’s flying records for local authorities to access have been given the thumbs down by privacy advocates, who fear the data will be used to track users’ movements. Methods to mask identification are also likely to be employed by those hellbent on causing chaos with their drone. DJI is pushing forward with the technology, fearful that tougher regulation will be applied to the industry which it currently dominates.

The myriad issues with introducing a reliable drone operator detection system mean that defensive measures are likely to come to the fore in the next few years, as drone sales continue to rise and drone safety incidents inevitably follow.

For New Zealand air safety expert Andrew Shelley, drone jamming and measures to take them down are necessary but not adequately allowed for under current legislation.

The law must be changed to allow the use of defensive measures against drones by authorised parties,” he writes.

“The police in the UK admitted their efforts at Gatwick were hampered by legislative issues. The US, on the other hand, has passed legislation allowing defensive measures against drones, including by the Department of Homeland Security.

“New Zealand should do the same.”

Five rules to avoid drone flying disaster

  • Keep the drone in sight and fly it lower than 120m or 400ft
  • Only fly it over people or property with permission
  • Stay at least 4kms away from airports and helipads
  • Stay away from other aircraft
  • Be considerate of others

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