Holiday travelers are still reeling in the wake of an unprecedented airport shutdown, after rogue drones flew near London’s Gatwick airport in the days ahead of Christmas, forcing planes to stay grounded or land at other airports.
It turns out, hundreds of drones have been flying near UK airports.
San Francisco-based drone startup Dedrone has spent the past year installing its anti-drone detection technology at four undisclosed airports across the United Kingdom — but they say Gatwick wasn’t one of the airports they worked with.
In just 148 days (about 5 months), 285 drones were detected flying near the four, undisclosed UK airports — that’s nearly two drones per day.
It is illegal to fly drones within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of a UK airport, and violators can face up to five years in prison. Drones up to 7 kilos are allowed to fly in other controlled airspace, but they must never be flown at more than 400ft high, must not be flown further than 500 meters from their operator, and the person operating a drone must “ensure it is not a danger to people, property, vehicles or vessels.”
UK airports are looking for solutions to deploy counter-drone technology, and experts think that had Dedrone’s tech been deployed at Gatwick, the international havoc could have been prevented. Dedrone’s counter-drone platform combines hardware sensors and machine-learning software, claiming that it can provide early warning of drone interference, as well as classify the type of drone being flown in an attempt to mitigate drone threats.
Despite the large number of drone sightings at UK airports, Dedrone said they think the majority of the drones aren’t being flown for intentionally disruptive purposes.
“The majority of the incursions occurred on weekend afternoons when drone hobbyists may be flying drones to capture footage for personal use,” according to their report.”
But even though the drones are probably being flown by casual hobbyists for fun — rather than as an act of terrorism as people feared in the Gatwick incident, airport operations are looking for ways to prevent future incidents. Such incidents are not only dangerous, but expensive. When a drone was at the Dubai airport, it was estimated that it cost $100K/minute of losses to the airport.
Experts say international aviation regulators have been slow to provide guidance to airports as to the types of counter-drone technology they are allowed to incorporate into their operations.
“This lag to adopt drone detection technology at airports will only become increasingly more dangerous as more incidents occur,” according to Dedrone’s report. “As seen with the Gatwick Airport shut down, drones are going to cause damage and disrupt operations, leaving passengers frustrated and airlines blocked out of safe and clear airspace to fly.”
44% of the drones detected by Dedrone at UK airports were manufactured by DJI, the leading producer of consumer drones. But that’s not actually a black eye for DJI; the consumer drone manufacturer has an estimated 70% to 80% market share, meaning far fewer DJI drones are causing problems than the ratio of drones on the market. One reason why might be DJI’s geofencing — a software program that creates a virtual “fence” around a drone, preventing it from flying into certain areas.
DJI does allow customers to get around the geofence by giving pilots the ability to request authorization to fly in sensitive areas through a streamlined application process, which typically allows them to receive a code unlocking their drone in less than 30 minutes.