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It is still not too late to close the airport doors after the drones have bolted. There are potentially much worse security breaches to come. Reverberations from the Gatwick Airport drone incident keeping 140,000 passengers from their families has moved the UK Ministry of Transport (MoT) into action. Their new report, Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK Government Response extends recent drone laws and gives the police new powers. But are they doing enough to protect our security?
There are sensible measures in the report such as extending the no-drone areas around runways from 1km to 5km as pilots have been saying for some time. The police are being given new powers to give on the spot fines for drone misdemeanors and may now seize drones when they have reasonable suspicion. They can also demand access to the data on drones if there is a good reason to do so. These are all necessary measures but they would not have helped whatsoever to prevent the determined drone capers at Gatwick. And last night (Tuesday) a drone sighting brought a Heathrow terminal to a shuddering halt for nearly an hour.
The Government is playing catch-up and needs to get ahead of the game urgently as the new breach at Heathrow shows. What about all of the other UK airports both small and large and other critical civilian infrastructures such as sports arenas and bridges. They are all under threat now and what we have seen so far may well just be probing security for something much more consequential.
In a previous article on the Gatwick incident, I outlined some of the drone protection methods that already exist and asked why the UK was so unprepared. When the Royal Airforce were eventually called in, it was alleged that they had the needed defensive kit- phew! This has now been removed from the airport but apparently, both Heathrow and Gatwick have announced a £5 million spend on new drone countermeasures.
The Israeli weapons manufacturer Rafael told Janes Defence Weekly that the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) purchased a Drone Dome counter-unmanned aircraft system from them in August 2018. According to the Mail Online, the MoD bought 6 of them at a cost of £2.6 million each. We do not know for sure if they have received delivery and if this is the hardware that they sent to Gatwick in December.
Rafael’s counter drone system uses 4 radars for 360 degrees location and tracking. Smallish drones can be detected between 2 to 6 miles away. Then the system can deploy a radio frequency jammer to block communication between the drone and its operator and stop it from operating. That is the one purchased by the MoD. Another option which they did not buy has a laser system to ‘hard kill’ the drone and bring it down but MoD didn’t buy that one.
We just have to buy one of these for each of our airports and critical infrastructures and bingo! we are all safe. Well not quite. Rogue drone operators and particularly those with intent to kill are a very smart and highly resourceful bunch. Let us just take a few examples that may break you into a sweat as you head for the airport.
The drone defender assumes a link between a drone and an operator. That is not always the case and techniques can range from very simple to complex. One method used by ISIS in Syria was to load small drones with explosives and set them off with no further control. These fly until their batteries run out and then they crash, triggering an explosion.
Slightly more sophisticated, the amount of power left in the battery together with the weight of the loaded drone can be used to calculate travel distance. Another step up is to set a flight path with GPS coordinates so that the drone can travel to a set location and then return to base or to crash when the path ends.
Ahead of all of these disasters waiting to happen is the possibility of an autonomous drone attack. Autonomous drones are ones that once launched can fly around seeking out target areas without any human supervision. The superpowers have been developing these as autonomous weapons systems for some years now. But it does not require superpower resources to make a relatively small drone autonomous.
A good example is the Cupid drone made by Texas company Chaotic Moon. This is an autonomous drone equipped with a Taser to deliver 80,000 volts by firing a dart at intruders. You can see it Tasing their office intern in the video below. Of course, this could be any other kind of small weapon.
The more expensive version of the Rafael Drone Dome with the ‘hard kill’ laser would help more in these situations. But there are some even greater problems. What if several autonomous (or operated) drones were used. These systems would be befuddled. Smart rogue operators could simply use drone foils to distract from the main event.
If that does not make you think that the UK and other governments need to get ahead of the game, there have been massive advances in drone technologies over the last decade. Perhaps most worrying is swarm capability. Both the US and China have been working on swarms of small aircraft (more than 100) that can be controlled by one or a few people or work in autonomous mode.
Systems such as the Drone Dome and others that I have mentioned before would be completely ineffective against swarms of drones autonomous or not. The worry is that the authorities may think that this is far out technology in the province of sci-fi or only possible with military infrastructure. Wrong! Autonomous swarm robots have been in academic labs for years. I developed my first one for the Magna Science Centre in Rotherham in 2001. Now they are becoming more common at concert venues for autonomous synchronized movement. The Guinness world record for the most drones working together synchronously was set in 2017 with 1000 drones at the Chinese lantern festival.
That record was broken again this year at the Chinese lantern festival with 1,347 EHang drones. Then in 2018, the US chip manufacturer Intel, who held the first world record in 2015 for 100 drones, crashed through the record with 2018 drones simultaneously controlled by one computer.
Nowhere near that number of drones would be needed to overwhelm current counter-drone systems. So what can we do about it? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet solution and yet this is a realistic and frightening prospect. Security services should be thinking about this now and hopefully, they are.
Perhaps we could start by spending more money on defensive measures rather taken from the fortune we are spending on offensive drones for the military. The major lesson to be learned from Gatwick and Heathrow is that it is too late to wait until it we are confronted by these situations. Let’s get our thinking ahead of the game now while there is still time.