GIVEN the collision at Heathrow and the potential for aerial terrorism, have regulators been caught napping on policing the skies, asks Dani Garavelli
As the British Airways airbus A320, carrying 132 passengers and five crew, came into land at Heathrow Airport last week, it collided with an unidentified object. Pilots are used to the risk of bird strikes, which can do a fair amount of damage, denting the nose of the plane or ripping a hole in the undercarriage. In 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed an A320 in the Hudson River after geese were ingested into the engines. But this time, the man at the helm was convinced the entity that had strayed into his path was a drone operated by an amateur with scant regard for safety.
Inquiries are ongoing; on Friday, transport minister Robert Goodwill played down the incident, claiming the plane might have been hit by nothing more sinister than a plastic bag. But whatever happened, experts believe the scare should serve as a wake-up call. As the market burgeons, near misses involving drones are becoming more common. According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) there were 40 in 2015, compared with nine the year before. Earlier this year, the UK Air Proximity Board said drones had been involved in serious near-misses at Heathrow, Stansted, London City and Manchester airports.
The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) has been calling for action to prevent the “catastrophic” accident some see as a inevitability; but it is not only aviators who are worried. Fears that drones flown over football grounds and concerts might cause injury were realised when one crashed into spectators at a rodeo in Virginia in the US in 2013; and that’s just the potential damage from careless operators.
Of even greater concern is the risk of drones being used for nefarious purposes. Professor David Hastings Dunn, head of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Birmingham University, believes it is only a matter of time before terrorists will be strapping explosives to drones, allowing them to by-pass security systems and carry out attacks on open-air events. (It was only the failure to get through security, after all, that prevented the three suicide terrorists killing far more people at the Stade de France in Paris). Hezbollah are said to have flown drones into Israel in the hopes of hitting the Dimona nuclear reactor and IS to have used them for propaganda purposes. Dunn claims drones are already being employed to carry out crimes such as dropping off drugs and casing houses for burglaries. He also believes they could be used to kill remotely without leaving a forensic trace. “They are the perfect tool for burglars, murderers and Peeping Toms,” he says.
Some countries are looking at ways to track and intercept drones: in Holland birds of prey have been trained to attack them; in Japan, “good” drones equipped with nets are sent in to catch “bad” ones. “Like aerial lacrosse,” says Dunn. But in the UK, little is being done to tackle the problem. “Everyone seems to be waiting for disaster to happen before they act.”
A decade ago, drones were known mostly for their involvement in foreign wars; they were often derided as a means for the US to carry out attacks without getting its hands dirty. But over the past two years – as the micro technology they rely on has advanced – there has been an explosion in their use, both commercially and recreationally. Though the kind of drone used for filming aerial shots in the movie London Has Fallen would set you back £40,000, a DJI Phantom 3, regarded as entry level for commercial use, costs around £400, a Parrot Bebop, between £250 and £400, and quad-copters can be picked up for less than £100. Some drones are so small they fit into a wallet, while others are four foot in diameter.
The upsurge in their use is being fuelled by their affordability and the fact electronic retailers have started stocking them, but also by a media obsession with gadgetry. The Dubai World Drone Prix, the first global drone-racing event, won by 15-year-old Luke Bannister, added a touch of glamour.
But the real beauty of drones lies in their potential for industry. Every day it seems new applications for the technology are emerging. Already they are being used to check for faults on oil and gas platforms and wind turbines. When a crack was discovered on the Forth Road Bridge, drones were sent up to carry out a structural survey. “Very quickly they were able to home in on where the problems were,” says John Gore, operations manager for UAV-Air which runs training courses for those who want to use drones commercially. “Without them, it would have taken 10 to 15 times longer to produce scaffolding and platform access for the operators. Instead, they were able to collect the data they needed within minutes.”
Drones are most impressive when – as in the above case – they are making life safer for human beings. Increasingly, they are being used to search for those missing in terrible conditions on mountains. “Not only does using drones mean people aren’t risking their lives on the mountainside, but a human walking over a large area can’t cover the ground as quickly or get the same situational awareness, and obviously the HM Coastguard and National Police Air Service are expensive resources, called out only in extreme circumstances.”
Drones are being deployed to fight poachers in Africa, make emergency aid drops and spread herbicides over fields. And Amazon and Google have been trying to develop technology that would allow them to deliver packages to people’s doors. However, while many of the potential applications of drones are positive , their capacity to carry out surveillance has raised concerns over privacy and civil liberties.
Those who want to use drones commercially have to obtain a nationally recognised qualification. UAV-Air is one of 16 British companies delivering training and the only one to do so in Scotland. Every second month it runs an intensive three-day course at Perth Racecourse which culminates in a flying assessment. Four out of six of its directors are airline pilots.
They are seeing a steady stream of people coming through their doors. “The market for drones is huge,” says Gore. “Just as one aspect becomes saturated, another opens up. I have heard it said that if you compared the history of drones with the history of aviation, we would only be at the stage of the biplane just now. There is so much more to come.”
Just as commercial use is burgeoning, so too is recreational use; but those flying for fun do not need to gain a qualification. All they have to do is take their new toy out of the box, quite possibly discarding the safety advice in their haste to get it airborne. Recreational drone operators do have to abide by a number of regulations – a kind of aerial Highway Code. For example, they are not allowed to fly above 120 metres or further than 500 metres horizontally; they are not allowed to fly within 50 metres of a person, structure or vessel or within 150 metres of a built-up area or an open-air gathering of more than 1,000 people. The problem is many of those who are flying drones are either unaware of these regulations or fail to abide by them; and catching those who breach them is difficult. So far there have been just a handful of prosecutions in the UK. Robert Knowles was fined £800 and told to pay £3,500 in costs after his delta wing plane crashed in a no-fly zone near a BAE Systems shipyard that builds nuclear submarines. He was only caught because the camera had recorded his car registration.
Nigel Wilson from Nottinghamshire was fined £1,800 after flying a drone over football matches and tourist attractions. He was only caught because he put the footage online. In most circumstances, it would be almost impossible to track an offending drone back to its owner.
In the US, where there have been 700 near misses involving drones, the Federal Aviation Authority has made it obligatory for those weighing more than a quarter of a kilogram to be registered and given a serial number (only drones over 20kg have to be registered in the UK). But the system has struggled to cope with the numbers. In the first few months alone, 380,000 people registered, 17,000 more than the total number of people currently registered to fly planes and helicopters in the US.
The CAA and the UK government, however, seem to prefer a light touch; cynics suggest this is because of pressure from powerful lobbyists and an awareness of how much drones are worth to the economy, but pilots are worried, because no research has been undertaken to find out what damage a drone colliding with an airliner could do (though the A320 seems to have escaped unscathed). “We know planes are hit by birds, that birds are ingested into engines, but birds are made of organic matter. The impact of a drone could be very different,” says Gore.
He wants to see more public education campaigns highlighting the potential risks to recreational users and says UAV-Air is close to finalising a deal which would allow it to provide subsidised or even free training to hobbyists.
Dunn has his own frustrations; the academic has been talking about the terrorist threat posed by drones since 2012, but very little has been done to counter it, partly because there is no consensus on the degree of risk and the legal situation is quite complex.
Last week, Goodwill insisted current rules governing drone use were strong enough, telling peers on a House of Lords committee that the UK had “one of the highest regulatory safety standards for commercial aviation in the world”; and yet drones were banned from London for the duration of Barack Obama’s visit.
“I went to the Home Office technology centre briefing on this at the end of last year,” says Dunn. “The room was full of science and technology people. The whole day was spent on: how do we address this issue?” They talked about how technology could be used to reduce the threat from drones, but also about what was proportionate and legal when it came to intercepting them.
To illustrate the dilemma, Dunn talks about a drone that landed in the grounds of the White House last year. The Secret Service could have shot it down, but this would have endangered the lives of passing tourists.
“During the Olympics, we spent a lot of money putting in air defence systems on top of car blocks all round London. The helicopter carrier HMS Ocean was parked in the Thames and there were helicopters flying off of there,” Dunn says. “There were Royal Marines with shotguns and an air exclusion zone round the capital; so they took aerial threats including drones seriously during that period. Then, they took all of that apart because it was expensive.”
Goodwill believes the UK continues to be under greater threat from suicide bombers than UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), but Dunn is less sure. He says it would be easy to marry a drone with an IED (improvised explosive device) similar to those which killed British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he points out they wouldn’t even need to use explosives: if a drone was to drop flour over a large crowd it would cause a mass panic within a confined space. The Oxford Research Group’s Remote Control project has suggested drones with explosives might be used to target embassies or the Prime Minister’s car.
So what technology could be used to prevent either an accident or an attack? Some manufacturers are looking at “geo-fencing”: software that programmes a drone’s GPS not to fly near sites such as airports and nuclear power stations. Others are looking at virtual tethers which would prevent them from flying more than 500 metres from the person operating them.
But such technology is still at an early stage and – judging by Goodwill’s lukewarm response to geo-fencing – there isn’t much pressure to push ahead. “We are experiencing a revolution of access to the air. But the technology is way ahead of the legislation and way ahead of the risk assessment,” says Dunn.