For almost 30 hours in December, a phantom terrorized Gatwick, the second-busiest airport in the United Kingdom. The drone or drones in question have still not been found. Instead of a Phantom, they might have been Parrots, or Mavics, or something more Yuneec, but whatever the actual craft, the effect was the same: in the middle of holiday travel, the airport was haunted by an uncrewed spectre of some kind. At the Interpol World conference held in Singapore, July 3, British security officials attempted to explain how a drone, or perhaps a handful of drones, kept the airport immobilized.
Sussex Police Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw, in conversation with journalist Philip Ingram, gave an explanation for why police were unable to manage the drone sightings. According to BBC reporting, Burtenshaw told Ingram that the counter-drone plan was based around a single drone incursion on the airport, which was not equipped to handle incursions by two or more drones.
Part of the limitation extends to the whole field of counter-drone technology. Directional jamming antennas, carried like rifles or Ghostbuster-esque proton packs, are limited in range, can only disrupt over a small targeted area, and need to be nearby to stop a drone from being in the way. Larger jamming devices would interfere with multiple signals used by both civilian aviation and just everyday technology, making them perhaps more viable for use in military installations.
The counter drone market is rich with ideas and little general consensus about what best works for site security, at either military or civilian installations. Some, like Moscow’s proposed drone interdiction with other drones, are plausible but require robust detection infrastructure. (Interdiction by ramming drone or gun-armed drone, meanwhile, are unlikely options for when bystander casualties are a concern.) The Pentagon itself has yet to settle on a standard set of tools for the counter-drone mission, though a plethora of options persist in the budget.
While Gatwick is a civilian operation, drones and counter-drone technologies are fundamentally dual-use, and military equipment was brought in to try and help the airport manage drones. Even the simplest case of accidental intrusion that threatens aircraft has implications for military operations, and persistent runway shutdowns, like we saw in Gatwick in December, suggest a need for more extensive and creative thinking around drone security.
So, what, exactly, went wrong?
While a handful of bystanders were investigated shortly after the incident, no charges have been filed in relation to the Gatwick drone sightings. An arrest is still an after-the-fact solution. What is needed, especially, are tools that can respond in real time. While the military offered some to the Sussex police, it’s likely the force opted not to use them at Gatwick out of an abundance of caution. Burtenshaw said use of military counter-drone jamming technology was not tested for use in civilian spaces, worrying about the possible effect of the jammers on hospital infrastructure. (Video of the interview was available on YouTube, until it was removed following further inquires about the Gatwick incident from The Times journalist Lucy Fisher.)
Setting aside the oddity of Sussex Police takedown request about a publicly posted interview with a journalist, what is still available reveals a profound lack of imagination on behalf of the security officials about what types of threats they may face from drones. That jammers can interfere with more than the intended targets is the nature of jammers, but it’s hard to imagine that, nearly six months out from the Gatwick shut-down, there has been no attempt to see how jammers might fare in the future as a blanket response against multiple drones.
For its part, commercial- and civilian drone giant DJI, maker of the Phantom and other models, has built a series of safety features into its drones, and published a letter asking that BBC coverage of Gatwick include discussion of those features. These features include geofencing around airports and other sensitive locations, hard-coded altitude limits, and tools that can identify drones remotely for security professionals. While some features like this can, at times, be overcome by a determined actor, by and large they’re designed to greatly mitigate any risk hobbyist craft might pose to other aircraft.
There is also the maddening possibility, present since the first drone sighting, that without recorded and verified detection of a drone, a panic alone over imagined drones is enough to shut down an airport, embarrass a police force, and befuddle military technology.
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.