Taking drones down to earth
Drone technology has outstripped the ability to enforce safe usage
Dubai Airport was closed at the end of October because of an unauthorised drone flying close to the airport. Airspace was closed and flights in and out of Dubai and Sharjah Airports were diverted for over an hour, resulting in considerable disruption and economic loss that according to some estimates, can cost as much as $1 million per minute.
Unfortunately, it is not the first time that Dubai Airport has been shut due to drone activity - it is the third such incident this year, the fourth in two years. Each shutdown has caused the same levels of disruption and economic losses, and the story is the same around the world. Airports in particular are vulnerable to drones near planes, and the risk of near misses or crashes with drones is enough to result in shut downs every time a rogue drone invades their airspace.
Alongside the safety risks of drones flying into other aircraft, other vehicles, power lines, people and so on, there is great concern about drones invading privacy, even when they are just flying from someone's garden or in a park. Some countries have banned them outright - Sweden is the latest country to announce that it is banning camera drones unless operators acquire an expensive permit from the government.
There is a lot of positive potential in drone technology, and Dubai has set out its ambitions to lead in this sector, with many government departments undertaking trials of drones for purposes ranging from inspection of infrastructure to helping to save swimmers from drowning. The Drones for Good competition, organised by the TRA's ICT Fund, is both highlighting the potential of drones, and encouraging their use among governments and NGOs.
The problem is that drone technology has developed faster than either the legislation to manage their proper use, or the ability to enforce the rules. Recently I had a conversation with a system integrator, who explained that their customers in the aviation sector are starting to request drone defence alongside the usual physical perimeter security measures, such as CCTV and movement sensors.
However, drone counter measures are still very much in development. One solution is to train birds of prey to hunt drones, although this is proving difficult to do without the birds hurting themselves. Other measures such as drone hunting drones, or nets fired from cannons, are of limited practicality.
One possible measure that might work on a wide scale is geo-fencing, where GPS tracking is used to alert a user if they move into a prohibited area, such as the no-fly zone around an airport. Government-mandated licensing could require installation of geo-fencing software on a drone to warn users of no-fly zones, or even disable the drone if it infringes on secure areas (or better still, fly to the nearest police station!)
Drones can be a great tool in many different areas of operation, but it is clear that there is a pressing need for legislation to prevent accidents and disruption, without preventing innovation. Anti-drone measures, whether technology-based or physical, need to be developed and deployed in concert with legislation to manage the sector properly. Governments urgently need to find a way to ensure safe and responsible use of drones for the good of all.