Those tiny flying intruders

The drones that buzzed London’s Gatwick airport earlier this month show that these little unmanned aircraft need more attention from authorities.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
An exhibitor demonstrates a drone in flight at the 2017 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The huge disruption of air travel at Britain’s second-busiest airport caused by small unmanned flying drones has brought new scrutiny to a growing risk to public safety, privacy, and security.

The incidents began Dec. 19 and over three days affected more than 1,000 flights and 140,000 passengers, with drones spotted at least 40 times. British authorities remain unsure of the culprit and have offered a reward for helpful information.

Small flying drones don’t need to carry any kind of explosive or weapon to pose a danger at airports. They could be sucked into a plane’s air intake and cause an engine failure, for example. Police and security teams are reluctant to shoot them down in populated areas because of the risk from stray bullets or the falling drones themselves.

Simple hobbyist drones can cost less than $100 and more sophisticated versions sell online for under $1,000.

Some 200,000 drones are sold for civilian use around the world every month, according to a study from Oxford Research Group’s remote control project. Nearly a million private drones were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration as of October 2017. 

For years researchers and futurists have theorized about the wonders of a world of drones, perhaps most famously presented in the promise by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013 that delivery of packages by drone was only four or five years away. 

That hasn’t happened but unfortunately misuse of private drones has grown: For example, in November a commercial aircraft approaching Boston’s Logan Airport spotted a drone flying just below it, one of a number of reported incidents near airports. 

Drones have also secretly delivered drugs or other illegal items to prison inmates and have been used by a professional soccer team in Germany to spy on a rival club. Drones have even tried to look down on and capture the secretive filming of the popular TV series “Game of Thrones.” (The production company supposedly employed high-tech “drone killers” to fend off the nosy intruders.)

While industrial espionage remains a real concern, researchers have considered even more sinister uses. “Think of nearly any worst-case scenario, and you can probably do it with a drone,” says Kunal Jain of the drone security company Dedrone.

Tiny drones can be hard to detect and can operate even at night. But defenders are making progress, too. Devices can shoot netting at drones from the ground or from friendly drones to bring them down without resorting to gunfire. Electronic countermeasures can jam GPS or other onboard systems to drop drones from the sky. And in the Netherlands, police are trying a low-tech solution, training eagles to snatch drones with their talons to bring them to earth.

After Gatwick, it seems certain more attention should and will be paid by both government and private industry to counter these tiny intruders before they cause more serious harm. 

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