Like many emerging technologies, drones are packed with promise but their capabilities can readily be harnessed by folks with mal-intent. This reality has played out at London's Gatwick airport today where drones have been sighted hovering over the airfield, disrupting hundreds of flights and leaving thousands of travelers stuck in limbo. So what options do the authorities have in trying to neutralize these threats?
There are many places you are allowed to fly drones, but the airport is most certainly not one of them. Collisions with aircraft, where a drone loaded with flammable lithium batteries could enter the engine and potentially take a plane down, would obviously be disastrous. For that reason we are seeing plenty of avenues being explored to prevent these dangerous encounters.
For example, the US government has previously trialed a technology called the Anti-UAV Defense System at some airports, which continuously scans the area for drones with an electronic radar. If a threat is detected, it fires a 4-watt directional beam at it to jam its radio signals and bring it to the ground.
This is a similar technology used by startup Droneshield, which now offers a range of handheld "DroneGuns" that fire these disruptive kinds of beams from the shoulder. These tools were actually adopted by the authorities in Australia earlier this year when policing the Commonwealth Games in the northern state of Queensland. There are mixed reports as to whether or not they were of any use.
A couple of years ago, the largest maker of drones in the world, Chinese outfit DJI, actually started building geofencing software into its aircraft that will stop them venturing into restricted airspace. This move followed another firmware update that specifically stopped its drones flying over the White House, after a drone crashed on its lawn. The US Federal Aviation Administration also launched a database requiring hobbyists to register their drones, though this was later abandoned.
Some of the more imaginative solutions to drone safety include nets fired from shoulder-mounted cannons and even from other drones themselves. This solution, which emerged from Michigan Tech, can be flown toward the threat until it is within striking distance, capture the rival drone in the net and then return it safely to ground.
And some are even bringing natural flying machines in to tackle the problem. Both the French military and the Dutch National Police have equipped eagles to snatch drones out of mid-air. These skillful birds are trained to see the drones as prey, just as they would in the wild, and carry them to a safe place. These capabilities have even been shown off in some dramatic demonstrations.
Despite the many possibilities, none of these methods have been established as a catch-all solution to trespassing drones, at least not to the point where the incident at Gatwick could be easily prevented. The runways have been closed since Wednesday night local time, with drones repeatedly appearing over the airfield in what authorities are calling a deliberate attempt to disrupt flights.
This has affected tens of thousands of travelers according to The Guardian, with 760 flights carrying 110,000 passengers left grounded on Thursday. A prominent warning remained in place on the airport's website, stating the runway remains unavailable because of the continued drone sightings. Meanwhile, the military has been deployed to try and find a solution.
An incident of this magnitude is likely to spur new conversations around how to deal with prickly issue of unmanned drones and commercial aircraft. At worst, this is a potentially catastrophic situation, and at very best it is a monumental inconvenience. More than three million passengers traveled through Gatwick's gates in November, and one in six of its passengers travel on long-haul flights. The ripple effects of this incident is therefore likely to create huge headaches for airports the world over.
"We hope the authorities find the operators of these drones and the full applicable legal action is taken to deter future incidents of this kind," the International Air Transport Association said in a statement. "Additionally, we look forward to accelerating the cooperation between the industry, drone manufacturers and governments to reduce the risks of rogue drone operations. Such measures could include greater education and awareness for drone operators, a registry of drones above a certain level of capability, enhanced fines and prison sentences for offenders, and technological solutions to prevent drones entering restricted airspace."
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