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Industry Focus

Entering the Drone Zone

By John Wilson, Executive Editor 

Was it a bird or a plane? This was the question the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and 140,000 stranded passengers were desperately asking at Gatwick Airport in Sussex, UK, last December as Christmas holiday traffic was grounded by drones flying illegally through the highly regulated airspace during peak getaway time. The incident, which cost the airlines millions of pounds in cancelled flights and compensation, created an existential crisis for airports, the CAA, law enforcement, and even the Government, not to mention the panic in the travelling community as a result of something so small and seemingly benign causing such paralysis and disruption in such a short period of time.

Projected Industry Growth

With soaring sales of drones and the market predicted to reach a global total of $50 billion in the next five years, drones have, up until the Gatwick incident, created a largely positive buzz with a general commercial view that the sky’s the limit for the industry’s take-off. Commercial success to date has been limited and focused on tethered drones that are powered through the wire that connects it to the ground, so flying time is unlimited. Used in infrastructure development, including the UK’s national roll-out of 5G, the tethered drones could also be used as high-flying security guards live-feeding visuals back to the ground for retailers wanting to monitor the perimeters of their distribution centres, for example.

Jim Gibson, managing director of Tethered Drone Systems, which staged a series of demonstration flying days for potential customers across the UK during September, said, “We work with commerce including helping with the roll-out of 5G transmitters in the UK. With 23,000 masts, if one goes down, a temporary 4G service can be provided by putting a drone into service. In retail, tethered drones could also be used for DCs to monitor security, which would save a lot of money on erecting permanent CCTV pylons.”

But the industry is focused on seeing the potentially more lucrative, unmanned, battery-powered, and pilot-controlled drone market take to the skies. Strict regulations are in place, including geofencing, built-in technology that prevents unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) entering restricted zones such as airport perimeters. But as the incident at Gatwick airport illustrated, there is potential to fly under the radar of existing protocols.

The software can be hacked to override the protective no-fly zone systems, but on a more mundane level, an everyday kitchen material can defeat the most sophisticated geofencing technology. Rather like foil-lined bags used by shoplifters to negate radio frequency tags being detected by electronic article surveillance (EAS) barriers, tin foil can be used like kryptonite to defeat the geofencing technology. Even with these known glitches, the market potential of UAVs has continued skyward.

Last year, Global Drone Market Research highlighted the current trajectory, which includes military UAVs, to be worth $20.71 billion with a predicted 14.5 per cent increase between now and 2025. “Increasing use of UAVs in commercial and military applications is one of the most significant factors projected to drive the growth of the UAV market,” says the report. “Exemptions made by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow the use of UAVs in several industries are also contributing to the growth of the UAV market.” 

In June this year, for example, the US Department of Transportation made three major announcements: it proposed regulations to allow drone operators to fly over people as well as at night without a waiver or an exemption; it issued an advanced notice of proposed rule-making around UAVs asking for recommendations on countering drones that pose a risk to safety and security; and it awarded three contracts to commercial service entities to develop technology to provide flight planning, communications, separation, and weather services for drones under 400 feet. This prepares the ground, or rather the flight path, for operators such as the much-publicised venture by online retail giant Amazon, which also announced in June that it was “close” to a full launch of its Prime Air Service after three years of trials, one of which was in Cambridge in the UK.

On stage during Amazon’s re:MARS conference, an event highlighting the online giant’s work in machine learning, robotics, automation, and space, Amazon CEO Worldwide Consumer Jeff Wilke displayed the drone that will be used. It uses six rotors and “sees” what’s around it using a combination of data from visual, thermal, and ultrasonic sensors. Jeff insisted Amazon has built a drone with multiple redundancies for avoiding objects, even if it lost its connectivity. “Some drones are autonomous but not able to react to the unexpected, relying simply on communications systems for situational awareness,” said Jeff. “If our drone’s flight environment changes, or the drone’s mission commands it to come into contact with an object that wasn’t there previously, it will refuse to do so. It is independently safe.” 

According to Mark Wright, a director of UK-based Drone Impact which consults on commercial drone use all over the world, there is potential for Amazon-type applications. “There is an application in use in Iceland, believed to be the world’s first autonomous delivery system,” said Mark, a former Metroplitan Police counter-terrorism officer. He was referring to the AHA Flytrex food ordering drone that delivers to homes, but he cautions more needs to be done from a regulatory perspective to see such operations get off the ground anywhere else in Europe.

“Yes, there has been relaxation of regulations in the US and Iceland, but this is a controlled operation in less densely populated areas,” Mark said. To see home deliveries by drone at peak would, in his opinion, be at least ten years away and then only after there had been a “big conversation between national and local government and the public.” 

He continued, “We need to have that discussion and arrive at what we call a ‘smart skies’ strategy to create controlled air corridors that are below the airspace controlled by the Civil Aviation Authority so that there are not drones flying into restricted areas. There would need to be large-scale legislative change, and the public needs to part of this discussion because they need to ask themselves if they want to see drones buzzing over their homes carrying heavy loads. I know of one company where they are looking at putting shipping containers onto larger drones, for example.”

Threats

The narrative around this commercialisation for peak item delivery to the public has now cast a potentially long and low-flying shadow over the ongoing debate. Experts argue that the UAV technology is itself agnostic and incapable of malicious intent. The pilot, on the other hand, is the person who determines its use. This same argument has been used for defending gun laws in the US by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Of course, the military has weaponised drones for a long time by using them in the war against suspected terrorist targets in the Middle East. However, since the Gatwick incident, the realisation of the potential for the tables to be turned against civilian targets in the UK has crashed to earth with a bang as the current terror threat level—severe—includes UAV strikes in the counter-terrorist matrix.

In June, the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) gave a presentation on the threat levels to the UK’s security to some of the biggest names on the high street who attended the “Retail Engagement Seminar” at New Scotland Yard. Drones, and their malicious use, were a clear and present threat, particularly in crowded spaces, according to the CTU. According to one officer, “A lot of people are having to play catch up, and regulations are currently having to be updated.”

This was also underlined by the admission of the senior officer for Sussex Police that Gatwick Airport was simply not prepared for an attack by more than one UAV. Sussex Police Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said its “drone plan” had been based “around a single drone incursion and not a multiple one.” He said the airport industry was left “playing catch up,” but Gatwick’s defences were “now fit for purpose.”

“We have now got the mitigation technology in place. I wish we had that in December,” he added at the Interpol World Conference in Singapore on 3 July. “I still don’t know what effect a jamming technology is going to have on a hospital that is four kilometres away, so we have to be really careful.”

Superintendent Burtenshaw said the technology, which was installed in January at a cost of £5 million, would only be used if there were “no aircraft in the sky.” The comments illustrate the dilemma and confusion around the growth of drones and how to counter their negative impact. On one hand, they are seen as delivering a high-flying logistics solution, while on the other, they are viewed as dark angels in the hands of amateur enthusiasts flying potential lethal weapons in ignorance of the web of complex regulations protecting our air space.

The hysterical response to Gatwick—including advocates for active countering and jamming who would willingly use marksmen to shoot down UAVs, or even the idea developed in the Netherlands of training birds of prey to snatch the drones mid-flight before they enter a protected zone—illustrates a number of challenges where full risk assessments could find shortcomings. This approach flies in the face of the more measured “detect, track, and identify” school of thought explored later in this article.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said of the potential drone threat, “Two years ago, it was not a problem, a year ago was an emerging problem, and now it’s a real problem.”

Right of Bang

The reaction to Gatwick has recently been described as “right of bang” by Drone Impact Co-director Steve Hearn, who has both feet firmly based on terra firma with a grounded background in risk management and retail loss prevention. Steve, the former head of LP at up-market fashion brand Jaeger, now runs Total Risk Management (TRM), a risk management and safety consultancy focused on the retail market, specialising in providing bespoke safety management and support services. Working with Mark Wright, Steve formed Drone Impact under the TRM umbrella as a direct consequence of the surge in drone use and resultant questions around the safety issues that such commercial use presents.

“Such support has inevitably turned to advice around the nuisance and potential criminal issues associated with drones and as such was a natural extension of the TRM risk management portfolio,” said Steve.

Although the drone threat is real in terms of weapons and drug smuggling, espionage and snooping, and even illegal horse race syndicate bet-rigging where the drones can feed back winning results micro-seconds ahead of the live TV feed, for example, Drone Impact seeks to reassure businesses that a proportionate and proactive response to the potential threat of UAV incursions must be a strategic approach.

“If you are approaching the drone threat by shooting them out of the sky, you are adopting a ‘fire, ready, aim’ approach,” said Steve. “It’s completely the wrong way around and rather like a store detective tasering a suspect as they enter the store. Good security is not a product, but a process. It’s more than designing strong capabilities into a system; it’s about designing the entire system in such a way that all of the security measures and processes work together to achieve the required outcome. It is overcoming the ‘fire, ready, aim’ approach.”

The correct approach is derived from military thinking and a seminal book written by former US Marines Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley called Left of Bang. The premise of the book is military survival in that the “bang” refers to the explosion or gun shot or incident. “Left of bang,” therefore, is before the incident and where proactive planning and preparation for long-term resilience dig in. In a commercial world, it is having an effective business continuity plan in place that is regularly tested for resilience. Conversely, “right of bang” is the reaction to the incident where you are on the back foot, the enemy has the initiative, and for all intents and purposes, the battle is lost. 

“Left of bang is all about prevention, detection, and identification of a drone pilot, as well as the necessary interventions to locate where they are flying from,” said Steve.

Some of the solutions on the market that sensitive locations may already have invested in to triangulate areas where the pilot is flying the UAV from include RF sensors; IP cameras that can pan up, down, and side to side; radar; electro-optic technology; and LIDAR surveying technology that measures distances using lasers. The AXIS Q8742, complete with a bi-spectral and a thermal lens, as well as zoom capability, is one of the only cameras on the market that can focus skywards for any potential drone threat.

Lucas Young, AXIS’s industry-specific solutions manager and an expert in drone technology, said, “The threat is evolving to such a point that it is difficult to simply have one solution, but the crucial part the camera plays is drone verification. It works with radar (microwave) and radio frequency (RF) to give the user a track on the device, which is vital for our clients in the critical infrastructure and transport sectors. But this is not a one-company offering; it’s about the industry working together to come up with solutions. We provide open API (application programming interface) and a willingness to work with partners to enable the industry to find improved solutions to the evolving drone threat.”

Passive and Active Interventions

Reaction and threat training for staff and emergency service liaisons are part of the left-of-bang approach. “There is a threat signature, and identifying and intervening to halt it is part of the approach,” said Steve Hearn. 

There are also passive interventions, vision-cloaking technology, smart building integration, network isolation, and sightline or lighting interruption, all of which can target harden the location. In addition, there is active intervention where personnel are involved in “eyes on” surveillance, an active search for the perpetrators through triangulation and tracking, and ultimately enforcement through fines, imprisonment, and injunctions.

“Shooting a drone down and all the associated risks involved with that would certainly be right of bang. Carrying out a strategic risk assessment ahead of a potential incident that included an airspace audit, risk modelling, creation of an effective no-fly zone with accompanying signage, publicity, and communication would be left of bang,” said Steve.

Legal Framework

If Gatwick taught the UK anything about risk assessment, it was the fact that there is too much confusion around the legal framework—what is allowed and what is not. With expected eye-watering expansion in the drone market in the next five years, the paralysis caused by the airport incident could easily be repeated if the lessons are not learned. And the law must be effectively communicated so that no one is under any illusion as to their rights and responsibilities. For example, it is a little-known fact that homeowners have rights over the space up to 1,000 feet above their homes, so if a neighbour’s UAV strays into their garden by accident or for malicious purposes, they can invoke the law of trespass.

Apart from obvious locations like airports, it is illegal to fly within fifty metres of a building not in control of the pilot. It is also against the law to fly within fifty metres of a person, and importantly, the pilot must have the drone in their line of sight.

The Air Navigation Amendment Order 2018 makes the distinction between the person who has control or management of a UAV and the pilot, both of whom are liable in the instance of an incursion into restricted airspace. And in terms of airports, the one-kilometre restriction zone has now been extended to five kilometres. A fine of £2,500 or up to five years imprisonment could be imposed, and the pilot or owner of the drone must display a valid certificate that they are competent to fly or carry a pilot’s licence. The new Drone Bill 2018 can force drones to land and gives Police powers to seize equipment.

But the law cuts two ways in terms of drone-prevention technology. Ofcom powers also exist via the Wireless Telegraphy Act around interference with Wi-Fi when, for example, a drone strays into the restricted airspace over major cities. It is illegal to use jamming technology in such areas. If the drone is large and endangers other aircraft or people as a result of intentional and illegal jamming by those trying to halt its progress, an offence has also been committed under the Air Navigation Order. According to Drone Impact, the next stage will be the introduction of a form of “automatic number-plate recognition in the sky” to identify whether a drone is legal or a malicious foe. 

Understanding the law can also prevent false economies. For example, a prison on the Channel Island of Guernsey invested £250,000 in jamming technology to stop a drone with a payload of drugs being flown into the jail, only to be advised by the authorities that it could never be switched on because it would interfere with aircraft.

Drone Impact carried out a left-of-bang exercise at a military recruitment day at the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) located in the City of London, which is one of the world’s oldest battalions dating back to Henry VIII’s reign. It’s location, a quadrant of green in the centre of London’s dramatic skyline, makes it an obvious area of UAV restriction. During a four-week process up to the recruitment day and using the left-of-bang learnings, Drone Impact identified no fewer than eight illegal drones, one of which was sighted four times, despite the fact that the on-board geofencing should have prevented them from flying in the space. Drone Impact was able to locate and identify the launch areas of each of the UAVs.

“This is a 360-degree approach to what is a potential risky area, but with a legal and proportionate response, businesses can avoid the ‘fire, ready, aim’ approach and keep it left of bang,” added Steve.

Drones will no doubt feature on Christmas lists this year, including that of the CEO of Prime Air who wants to realise his commercial ambition to reach for the skies as the next delivery pathway. However, each gift comes with a health warning to users and the wider business community: be careful what you wish for as dreams can come crashing to earth. 

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