Disruption, Drones, and Airports

Dec 20, 2018

Yesterday, on the 19th of December at 9 PM  GMT, a drone overflight shut down Gatwick airport, the UK's second busiest airport, stranding tens of thousands of holiday travellers. 

  • Six additional overflights between 9:15 PM and midnight kept it closed.  
  • A planned 4:30 AM opening was cancelled by another overflight at 3:45.  Regular overflights at 7, 9, noon, and 3PM has kept it closed all day, causing the cancellation 760 flights and stranding 110,000 travellers.  
  • The police are now deploying snipers, jamming equipment, and a laser sniper system (2 mi range) to destroy the drone if it appears again.

This is a good example of what is possible with low cost and low risk systems disruption.   Some additional thinking:

  • Cost of drones:  ~ $100.  Disruption value:  ~$40-60 million (110,000 x $400 per ticket).  ROI = $500,000 for every $ invested
  • Method of attack: simple runway/terminal overflights.  Easiest to plan/accomplish.   
  • Timing of overflights maximized impact.  Initial flurry of overflights demonstrated it was a serious threat.  Infrequent but constant overflights showed the threat was still present.  No rapid return to business as usual possible.

Here's some thinking on the countermeasures being deployed the authorities and how they can be overcome.

  • Snipers/Laser.  One counter to this:  vary the location of the overflight in order make it harder to preposition.  If the drone is shot down, the easy counter is to send a second drone (and a third, etc.).  They are inexpensive and easy to replace.
  • Jamming systems.  Most recreational drone pilots use a control system to 'fly' the drone.  If so, jamming would be effective.   Easy counter:  let the drone fly itself.  A set pattern, either via GPS or time/distance calculations.      
  • Searching for the pilot.  Helicopters with infrared and vehicle homing in on the signal.  Counter (slightly more complex to the others):  set up multiple drones to take off and fly a pattern on their own either via remote Internet activation or via timed release.

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