How the Gatwick airport disruption gave rise to a counter-drone industry

A spate of potentially catastrophic incidents has proven a wake-up call to the dangers posed by the surge of interest in hobby drones

Passengers sit with their luggage in the South Terminal building at London Gatwick Airport, south of London, on December 21, 2018, as flights started to resume following the closing of the airfield due to a drones flying. - British police were Friday considering shooting down the drone that has grounded flights and caused chaos at London's Gatwick Airport, with passengers set to face a third day of disruption. Police said it was a "tactical option" after more than 50 sightings of the device near the airfield since Wednesday night when the runway was first closed. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)
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New York // The first collision between a drone and a passenger plane was reported in 2017.

A flight operated by Skyjet was coming in to land at Quebec City’s Jean Lesage International Airport when the crew reported an impact at an altitude of about 450 metres.

A drone had struck the plane’s wing. However, the small Beechcraft A100 King Air sustained only minor damage. It landed safely minutes later.

But the episode served as a wake-up call to the dangers posed by the surge of interest in hobby drones.

Canada’s transport minister warned the result could have been “catastrophic” if the rogue object had struck an engine or the cockpit.

Since then the problem has only intensified. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration receives more than 100 reports every month of unauthorised drone activity around aircraft.

With drones now being used for everything from delivering bagels and slurpees to surveying disaster areas, and hobby models selling for less than $100, there is a growing sense that the industry is expanding faster than regulation to contain it. That leaves an "arms race" in which developers with nefarious intent are one step ahead of efforts to protect potential targets such as aeroplanes, sports stadiums or public infrastructure.

You don't want people taking photos of you when you are sitting off a Caribbean island having some supper. That's how it was in 2018. Gatwick has changed the market entirely.

The result is a burgeoning private sector with new entrants rushing to fill the void with technology designed to detect and intercept or immobilise suspicious drones. Several eye-catching rounds of financing suggest the market is about to catch up.

Richard Gill, the founder of the British firm Drone Defence, said his main clients so far have been high-net worth individuals who were more willing to try new technology in order to protect their privacy or assets.

“You don’t want people taking photos of you when you are sitting off a Caribbean island having some supper,” he says.

“That’s how it was in 2018. Gatwick has changed the market entirely.”

Britain’s second-biggest airport was thrown into chaos at the start of the festive season last year. Almost 1,000 flights were cancelled over a two-day period amid multiple sightings of drones.

The authorities seemed almost powerless to act as travellers faced days of disruption.

A month later and the economic costs are becoming clear. EasyJet said the shutdown cost it £15 million (Dh72.7m) as a result of grounding some 400 flights. The airline paid out £10m in “customer welfare costs” and lost £5m of revenue because of the cancellations, it said.

The company’s chief executive Johan Lundgren describes the episode as a “wake-up call” to airports and airlines.

In all, the disruption could have cost as much as £50m, according to The Independent, which extrapolated from the easyJet figures to reach an estimate for the total.

“That’s a lot,” says Mr Gill, “and I think it’s the first time a pounds, shillings and pence figure has been applied directly to drone related activity.”

The result is that big government buyers and corporate customers who had been trying to figure out how much they could afford to spend on drone security now have hard numbers to play with, he says, adding that inquiries to his company had gone off the dial.

Since then, suspected drones have suspended operations at Heathrow Airport and at Newark Airport – the fourteenth-busiest in the US handling about 43 million passengers a year – in the latest case last week.

That example in particular illustrates the vulnerability of airports and other facilities that lack the ability to monitor and deter drones, according to Luke Fox, whose company WhiteFox attracted $12m in seed funding at the end of last year.

“When you look at what happened in Newark … that international airport shut down because a drone was flying 15 miles away from that airport,” he says in disbelief.

Two pilots reported seeing drones at about 3,500 feet near a smaller airport as they approached Newark. However, the Federal Aviation Authority says it has been unable to independently confirm the sightings leaving analysts wondering whether there was any cause for concern at all.

Mr Fox says that with proper surveillance, such as that offered by his company’s system, Newark could have stayed open.

“What WhiteFox technology allows you to do is to be able to have that situational awareness of your airspace, to know that that drone is outside of your flight corridor – you would be able to direct flights around it if necessary - you would be able to know that that drone did not pose a threat to the airport on the one hand and, on the other hand, if that drone did cause a threat to the airspace you would have the tool to safely land that drone,” he says.

His technology monitors airspace to identify radio frequencies used by drones – control signals sent from operators or video feeds beamed back to the ground.

“With that you then know where do the threats exist or maybe it wasn’t a drone, maybe it was just a white bird, and the cause for concern was fruitless,” he says.

Once the threat is assessed those channels can be used to force the UAV to land or be moved out of sensitive airspace without affecting friendly aircraft and without the risk of collateral damage posed by systems that use drone interceptors or missiles.

The system is already in use in the US and in other countries at nuclear power plants, power transmission and generation facilities, airports, prisons, military locations and professional sports stadiums that fear drones can be used to produce pirate video of major events.

It is not the only company to have deployed its counter-drone technology in the real world.

Airspace Systems says it has provided services for San Francisco Police and Major League Baseball at two high-profile events. Its Galaxy system, which uses AI to detect irregularities and which includes an interceptor drone where permitted, was deployed during 2018 World Series games in Boston and Los Angeles and during San Francisco’s Fleet Week – a display of Naval warships and planes.

Last year it raised $20m for its “kinetic” approach of using interceptors. Another company Dedrone - which provided security for the 2016 US presidential debates - also raised $15m for its jamming system while Citadel Defence brought in $12m.

Drone developers are also working to add systems to identify airborne vehicles, which they hope will help ease regulations on delivery services. Google owner Alphabet’s Wing division is planning to test drone deliveries in the US this year and has teamed with the start-up Airmap and Kittyhawk, a platform for operators, to build an app that can monitor drones within a certain area.

The idea is that the data can be shared with government agencies as part of a system to ensure the safe use of drones easing some of the regulatory concerns about policing the skies.

Mr Fox says regulators are guilty of holding back potentially lucrative market because of fears of rogue operators. Companies like his, he adds, are not anti-drone but are helping to ease concerns about misuse.

“The counter-drone industry is not the antithesis of the drone industry. If done wrong it can be,” he says.

“We are dong this to make sure the bad guys don’t get to fly their drones and all the good guys out there get to fly their drones.”