For 36 hours, starting on Dec. 19 and continuing through Dec. 21, the spectre of drones haunted Gatwick airport.
As the United Kingdom continues to search for the possible drone operators, who may have flown a drone or multiple drones near the airport, and determine if there were even any drones at all, police have adopted drone-detection and counter-drone tools to protect the country’s second-busiest airport from a flying robotic menace. The United Kingdom is hardly alone in adapting its security to counter the possibility of drones, and on Dec. 28, Moscow announced the city was deploying its own counter-drone force with a drone that can jam the signals of other drones.
The timing of Moscow’s announcement so close to the Gatwick incident is likely coincidental. Yet the problem, or at least the perception that there is a problem, is a second-order effect of the cheapness and availability of drones. Commercial drones and hobbyist drones are a regular part of irregular warfare now, and those skills are not strictly limited to entrenched positions or familiar battle lines. Assassination by modified commercial drone has yet to clear the hurdle from “botched attempt” to “successful attempt,” but with high-profile attacks, like the one against Venezuela’s President Maduro in August 2018 possibly inspiring copycats, having a reliable counter-drone system in place is preferable for countries than being caught off-guard.
“There are a number of [counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS)] technologies that Russian law enforcement has at its disposal ― they have been ‘battle-tested' during the 2018 World Cup held across the country” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses and a fellow in Russia studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Such technologies include [electronic warfare] and signal-interference stations usually housed inside a truck for greater mobility, as well as newer, lighter mobile platforms that affect a commercial drone’ satellite link, as well as scramble its comms, forcing it either to land or to return to its starting point. The use of signal-interference technology on an actual drone to combat the illegal use of commercial UAS technology is a new step.
“No doubt that Russian government’s C-UAS drive was influenced by what the nation’s military has experienced in Syria, where the armed forces and Russian allies were subjected to attack from adversary [commercial off the shelf] drones”, Bendett said. “There is currently mandatory C-UAS training across the Russian military, based on the Syrian experience, and the country’s security agencies such as FSB and National Guard are also training in and acquiring C-UAS technology.”
Paired with the expansion of counter-drone technology and deployment of counter-drone units are existing laws penalizing unauthorized flights over Moscow and new laws that would grant police the right to shoot down drones in restricted airspace.
As the security forces of the world adapt to the threat posed by drones, bullets remains a persistent, if underwhelming, response.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.