Defensive tech and better regulation needed to stop drone incidents, expert says

Dozens of drone companies are showcasing devices at tech show CES amid a second UK airport being closed because of a craft being spotted nearby.

Incidents of drones being used to disrupt airports will not stop until technology to better control rogue devices is more widely used, an industry expert has said.

Flights from Heathrow Airport were suspended for an hour on Tuesday after police spotted a drone, three weeks after drone sightings caused chaos over several days at Gatwick Airport.

Specialist equipment was used in both incidents, but one expert said until technology is more routinely in place alongside stronger regulation, it will be difficult to completely stop such incidents.

Mitchell Apple, a small unmanned aerial system instructor (sUAS) and the director of education at industry expert Drone Works, said a lack of “personal responsibility” was also a factor.

“Unfortunately drones are just another tool and they can be used however a person wants to use it,” he said.

“You could use a car to drive somebody to a hospital, or you can use a car to drive into somebody and send them to a hospital.”

Mr Apple was speaking from the show floor of the CES technology show in Las Vegas, where drone manufacturers are showing off their latest models to the public.

He said manufacturers needed to find a balance between defensive technology that prevented incidents such as those at Gatwick and Heathrow and systems which restricted law-abiding drone pilots too severely.

“There are a couple of different ways that are being explored. I think the most effective way is radio frequency jamming,” he said.

(Martyn Landi/PA)
A drone on display at CES (Martyn Landi/PA)

“So for this they have a couple of different devices that once they notice a drone, they can point these devices towards it and it will lose the remote control signal, it will lose the GPS signal, and that will force the drone to land immediately exactly where it is. So that’s probably the most reasonable to do it.”

Radio-jamming technology is believed to have been used by UK authorities as part of the strategy to end the Gatwick incident.

“There are also things like geo-fencing, which means drone manufacturers can stop the drone from entering certain areas and some drone manufacturers already do that – like DJI – but some don’t because there’s a balance there,” Mr Apple continued.

“I definitely think there is more that the manufacturers can do but that’s a really hard line to walk because when you do implement something, there will be other people who turn around and think that’s bad.

“The perfect example is the geo-fencing for DJI. I know a lot of public agencies who have had a lot of issues with that and now don’t want to buy DJI any more because DJI tried to do something that was good but that intention still turned around and actually hurt some of their customers. So it’s really complicated.”

He suggested drone use may eventually have to be regulated to an extent that it is restricted based on profession.

“You almost have to put in these strict guidelines and make it so if you’re a person of a certain job title or profession that you can then unlock it and then overcome these other obstacles. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the future,” he said.

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