By Harry Raffal

Following the disruption at Gatwick airport, it is unsurprising that the potential dangers and disruptions that private drones can cause have come sharply into focus. For many experts, the use of a small, readily available, and easily affordable drone to achieve the disruption witnessed at Gatwick was not unforeseen. Instead, there have been increasing warnings from security advisors, financial service experts and even the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, regarding the emerging risk exposures created by the recreational use of drones. The use of commercially available Drones to disrupt civil aviation has been one of the most apparent consequences of allowing the huge proliferation of these devices without ensuring there are relevant safeguards in place first. The prospect of a drone temporarily putting a major airport out of action was a threat which was predicted and reflected the lower end of warnings regarding ‘the potential for catastrophic damage.’ The question must surely be to ask why it has taken so long for this danger to be taken seriously by the government and aviation authorities.

There have been warning signs that drones while offering potentially enormous economic advantages, will be used by those with malign interests. In 2018 alone Drones have been involved in near-misses with RAF jets; caused low-level disruption at numerous airports; been used in an attempted attack on the Venezuelan President; they have also delayed and imperilled aircraft and helicopters involved in fire-fighting efforts. In Syria, the use of Commercially available drones by non-state forces is commonplace, and Kurdish forces released evidence of what they claimed was an ISIS Drone factory in July 2017.

The challenge of countering Drones without sufficient preparation is enormously difficult if the perpetrators are intent on causing disruption. During events at Gatwick, many observers may ask why such drones could not merely be shot down. It is difficult for those not familiar with military topics to immediately conceive that firing high-powered rifle bullets at a target can have potentially lethal collateral consequences if that target is missed – no small possibility when the target is a small, fast and agile Drone in flight. As the UK Security Minister, Ben Wallace stated following the disruption at Gatwick ‘the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions.’

This is not to say that there are no devices capable of disabling Drones, there are. Point-and-shoot ‘drone killers’ exist. These ‘drone killers’ use software-defined radio to jam the specific frequency a drone is operating on causing them to crash. Alternatively, for more sophisticated models, such ‘drone killers’ can force drones to land on auto-pilot. Even minimal preparation at UK airports would have ensured the capacity to detect the frequency a drone was operating on, and the use of a higher-powered transmitter would have provided the capacity to deal with the threat from commercially available Drones which do not possess the capacity to ‘channel hop’. Elsewhere, some thought has been given to counter the dangers posed by commercially available Drones. However, until the three days of disruption at Gatwick, there had not been any systematic preparations or hardening of vulnerable targets in the UK.

The future development of micro- and nano-drones, and their potential use in the civil environment brings with it the possibility of further disruption and dangers. The recent regulations which among other things have set height restrictions and, from November 2019, will require users of devices heavier than 250g to register with the authorities provide limited protection against those intent on the criminal use of drones. What is required is forethought and preparation to ensure that we are not discussing, in the not-too-distant future, why authorities were unprepared to deal with ‘swarms’ of these devices.

Harry Raffal is the Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum and has recently completed his PhD thesis on the RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of the Dunkirk in 1940 at the University of Hull. Harry has previously published research on the online development of the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces and presented papers at several conferences and events including the RAF Museum’s Trenchard lecture series, and the 2017 Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials conference. His research has been funded through bursaries and educational grants from the Royal Historical Society, the 2014 Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities research grant, the Princess Royal Trust, the University of Hull, the Sir Richard Stapley Trust and the RAF Museum PhD bursary.

Header Image: DJI Phantom 4 Pro/Pro+ quadcopter with camera. (Source: Wikimedia)

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