At the drones

The airport chaos offers few clues as to who might be flying the devices
A drone yesterday, for illustration purposes only. (Image: DARPA)

21 December 2018

As we all gather on Christmas morning to open the presents, more than a few households will likely be experiencing an expansion in their aeronautical capabilities in the form of a drone.

We here at TechPro Towers are guilty of contributing to this, as we gave some out as prizes during the year at our TechFire events. Generally, they were very well received.

“They have been described as of “industrial specification”, which means these are not your average toy or enthusiast beasts, but something more specialist such as survey machines”

However, not well received were the drone flights at Gatwick airport this week, that saw what one headline claimed as 350,000 people affected by runway closures, diversions and cancellations.

While that number may be in question, a whole host of questions have been asked about how drones could have been used in this manner.

They have been described as of “industrial specification”, which means these are not your average toy or enthusiast beasts, but something more specialist such as survey machines or the like.

That means they are bigger than the average drone, and so would constitute a problem were one to be ingested by a commercial jet aircraft or if tangling with by a light one.

It also means that they are subject to greater regulation and controls to ensure they operate within the law.

One of those controls is that they are generally equipped with geo-fencing through their GPS capability. This means that they have in-built awareness of restrictions and no- fly zones, such as those within 1 kilometre of an airport within the EU, or above 122m (400 feet). No-fly zones cover installations such as airports, prisons, hospitals, military facilities and more.

It was also pointed out by a drone expert, one Carys Kaiser, interviewed on the BBC, that the reports of their long loiter time indicates the machines are likely to have been modified with additional or extended batteries. Kaiser said the average commercial drone has a battery life of about 20 minutes or so. These drones have been reported as flying for extended periods and so may be modified for the purpose.

However, the fact that they have been operating over the restricted airspace at all would suggest they have been tampered with to allow the geo-fencing to be disabled. But a small bit of research reveals that one commercial drone maker, DJI (and there is no indication as yet of which, if any, vendor’s products are involved) has begun offering a geo-unlocking facility to allow those who have permits to enter restricted areas to use its products. This facility was introduced in July.

It is unlikely that mal-actors are going to be worried about laws and restrictions but it does indicate that if someone was intent on modifying a drone to allow it to be used in this manner, that one that has the facility built in might be easier to access and modify than one that does not, though I admit this is speculation on my part.

So what might have been a reasonable line of inquiry, looking for people who have been researching or sharing methodologies to get around restrictions, may be moot.

All reports labour how difficult it is to track down the operators of such devices, and how difficult to stop them without having collateral damage.

Firearms, nets, birds of prey and hunter-killer drones have all been suggested and most have been dismissed for obvious reason.

But be in no doubt: authorities around the world are taking notice to see what measures can be put in place to prevent such an incident, or worse in the future.


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