Gatwick Drone Incident Dec 18

Our thoughts go out to the passengers disrupted by the most recent alleged drone incident at Gatwick. The activity by the irresponsible drone operators has serious safety concerns and significant ramifications for the drone industry in the UK.

Reports have indicated that at least two drones have been spotted over the airport over several hours overnight.

Reading many of the news reports and social media posts, there has been numerous calls for the banning of drones, registration, drone tracking, anti-drone systems, and even calls for the army or air force to shoot them down.

Let’s discuss some of these debates and calls…

Geofencing: Most drones sold in the UK are made by a Chinese manufacturer DJI. DJI have done a lot to prevent drones from flying at or near airports. Most DJI drones are Geofenced, what this means is that they have a GPS database of airports and other sensitive sites in their software. Geofenced drones will not take off near an airport, if they try to fly towards one, they will reduce their altitude automatically until they land. There is however a community of drone pilots who have reverse engineered this restriction.

Drone Detection: Drones can be controlled using a variety of technologies, again the majority from DJI either use 2.4ghz or 5.8Ghz frequencies for control and video links. These are well document and most drone detection systems can detect these. There are however several other ways to control a drone, either through alternative frequencies in the UHF band, or through Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G. Jamming or detecting drones using mobile phone technology is somewhat more difficult.

Jamming: Jamming of common drone control links is not difficult and is easily done, there is a risk however that you bring the drone down, which has serious safety and risk concerns. Jamming 3G and 4G links also has other concerns, many other systems use these for example. Should the drone be using GPS for navigation then jamming or spoofing the GPS system is possible, either forcing the drone to return to home or move elsewhere. Again, there are safety concerns with doing this  as third parties could be injured or killed.

Anti-Drone System: There are many reported systems out there that state they can bring drones down, kinetic systems of various types, nets, lasers etc etc, unfortunately many of these system are currently illegal for use in the UK, and again there are safety and moral concerns about the use of these systems due to the possibility of injuring or killing third parties should the drone crash.

Drone registration is planned for 2019, this will not deter those wishing to use drones for nefarious purposes and is unlikely to have assisted the security services with the incident. Should it have been place now.  

Like any technology drones can be use for good and bad reasons, calls for an outright ban on drones are also unrealistic, the technology is widely available and would not restrict those wanting to cause disruption or worse.

So, what is the answer? well there is no one magic bullet in this respect. Airports are going to have to install multi-layered drone detection systems, radar, RF and visual. This will certainly help the security services detect drones and track them to their take-off and landing location more easily. Anti-drone systems that either take over control, force land or crash, are more difficult to deploy and would have to be carefully controlled,the law would also need to be changed in the UK to allow their wider use.

About the author: Craig Jump Is leading drone consultant, with over 7 years drone / UAV flying experience. He holds UK CAA permissions for fixed and rotary wing drones and is a UK CAA NQE Instructor and flight assessor.