The complete disruption of aviation activity at the second-busiest airport in the UK has more than pointed towards the intense potential of inexpensive flying devices. Adding to the worries is the fact that such devices are easy to make and a lot of people have access to them. This technological development is devoid of any regulation and its usage has no limits. A buzzing drone is reckoned to cause grave danger to passenger aircrafts that have no defence systems to fight off any challenge offered by them.
This is not the first occasion when airports have been raided by drones as another very busy Dubai international was briefly closed in 2016 and the main hub in Wellington, New Zealand was forced to shut down for some time after a mystery drone was spotted roving close to the runway. Airports and their flying approaches are heavily guarded and presence of such devices is infinitely dangerous for progression of flying process.
The issue is that the modern airports are huge in their content and it is almost impossible to secure them totally. Most airports are surrounded by residential and commercial buildings inhabited by large number of people providing limitless opportunities for drone operators to hide while maintaining line-of-site control of their troublesome devices. To exacerbate the situation is the new dimension to drone technology that is now capable of providing the operators to fly their unmanned devices miles away from an operator using remote video that is equally capable of providing long-distance view available to a plane’s cockpit view.
The eye-opening Gatwick disruption has compelled worldwide airport operators to brace-up for the impending chaos drones have the capability of causing. Gatwick’s drone nightmare is thought to be the most disruptive yet at a major airport and indicates a new vulnerability that will be scrutinised by security forces and airport operators across the world.
Flights at Gatwick halted after two drones were spotted near the airfield and the disruption affected at least 120,000 people. It is relevant to mention here that flying drones within one kilometer of the boundary airport boundary is punishable by five years in prisons but despite it the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year.
The Gatwick incident was a deliberate attempt and the British police authorities are convinced about it. The appearance, disappearance and re-appearance of drones periodically had a set-pattern to it. The intention behind it was clearly aggressive aimed at disruption and possible harm. This angle has added another worry pertaining to regulating commercial flights with a view that they may counter drones at some point between take-off and landing. It has also raised the prospects of commercial flights confronting drones quite far away from the take-off and landing points.
The increasing use of drones had already alerted law-makers in many countries who are putting in place regulations that would require all but the tiniest drones to broadcast their identity and position so authorities could identify operators who have crossed the line. Authorities in America blocked aviation regulators from moving ahead two years ago with rules allowing more unmanned flights over crowds until authorities could move ahead to address security concerns. The potential dangers associated with such an activity are more obvious in countries like Pakistan where security cover provided to public gatherings is usually not up to the mark.
Regulators are in favour of employing more the mechanism of geo-fencing to monitor drone activity. Drone makers including China’s DZ DJI Technology Inc. use built-in GPS to alert a pilot who is about to fly into restricted skies, such as around airports and prisons. But such systems have vulnerabilities and they also raise even more vexing legal and political issues. In fact, the tracking technology works alright with operators operating within the bounds of law but it does not prohibit its usage for criminal actions. In the same vein GPS limitations will fail to prevent deliberate attempts to interfere with flights.
Regulators are advising civil aviation authorities to be careful in employing anti-drone products because they may result in jamming radio signal and could create safety problems for aircrafts’ usual aviation radio systems. The process of preventing drones from harming civil aviation activity is a cat-and-mouse game and it is as difficult as preventing computer hacking. This unconventional threat has given rise to unconventional solutions such as one suggested by Dutch police in 2016 proposed using trained raptors to take out rogue devices, a variation on employing hawks to scare birds from runways. Another solution was to use peregrine falcons, which in their natural element kill their quarry by colliding with them.
One security system maker has developed a system that uses radio signals to halt a drone and force it to land, while an Australia-based firm DroneShield is developing a device resembling a traditional ballistic weapon. Police in Japan have experimented with snagging target objects in flight using a net deployed from an even larger drone. People are also getting aware of the drones invading their privacy and are increasingly employing open-source hardware to cut down drones flying randomely.
Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam is an educationist with wide experience