The curse of the drone strikes again

Menace: A passenger jet flying over London missed hitting a drone by less than 20 metres.

Unbelievable. Europe’s biggest airport, with earnings greater than a small African country, shut down by little more than a remote-controlled toy. That is what happened to Heathrow this week.

To make matters worse, it was all still so fresh in the memory.

One thousand planes grounded. More than 140,000 people whose holidays were ruined. Crowds sleeping like sardines on the terminal floor, cold and angry.

The cause of the chaos? A drone.

That was only last month, when multiple sightings of the hovering pests closed Gatwick airport for 36 hours. The disruption cost at least £20 million.

And then, incredibly, just 48 hours ago, something similar nearly happened again, this time at Heathrow. On this occasion, the chaos was short-lived after specialist army units were rushed in with state-of-the-art Israeli anti-drone technology.

Even though an average drone weighs less than a can of beans, almost exactly a million times less than the impressive 439,985 kilograms of a Boeing 747, it can still smash the blades of a jet engine or break a plane’s windscreen.

There has been widespread shock that such a small machine can paralyse one of the UK’s most important industries. One passenger said the drone operators have shown “exactly how to shut a country down”.

And yet, police seem to be no closer to catching the people behind the latest incidents or understanding their motives. It might be a stunt by environmental activists or a plot by a hostile foreign state.

Such attacks are likely to become more frequent. In 2013, the number of drone alarms concerning aircraft was zero. Last year it was over 100. Some fear that the wall-to-wall reporting of recent cases could encourage copy-cats.

So how do we stop this happening again? The government has pledged to strengthen drone regulations. Currently, it is illegal to fly a drone higher than 400 feet or within one kilometre of an airport. It is likely that the law will be changed to extend this to five kilometres.

And from November 2019, operators in the UK will have to register their device and take an online safety test.

But these rules will not stop lawbreakers intent on causing disruption. Shooting drones down is risky due to stray bullets, but a popular option is using radio technology that can jam the signals.

Dutch police are even training eagles to catch the airborne irritants.

Buzz off

How did we arrive at this moment in history, in which humanity is more technologically powerful than ever before, and yet we feel ourselves to be increasingly fragile? How is it possible for our societies to be so easily turned upside down?

Is it complexity that is to blame, as if the modern world is like the inside of a Swiss watch? Or could it be that humankind has swapped meaning for power, as best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari argues? Little, after all, is more dangerous than a person with a big fast car and no beliefs in anything at all.

You Decide

  1. Would you buy a drone?
  2. Are drones a force for good or bad?

Activities

  1. What words or phrases do you think of when you hear “drone”? Think of as many as you can then discuss them as a class. Are they generally negative or positive?
  2. Class debate time! “This house believes drones should be banned.” Think about what positive functions drones can serve, and whether bans against new technology can really be effective.

Some People Say...

“We are looking at a society increasingly dependent on machines, yet decreasingly capable of making or even using them effectively.”

Douglas Rushkoff

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Police are investigating after a drone sighting grounded flights at Heathrow airport for an hour on Tuesday evening. It comes less than a month after similar sightings caused chaos for thousands of travellers at Gatwick airport. Metropolitan police commander Stuart Cundy said, “we are deploying significant resources […] to monitor the airspace around Heathrow and to quickly detect and disrupt any illegal drone activity”.
What do we not know?
Who is flying the drones and why. After the Gatwick incident, police arrested a couple from Crawley, but they were quickly released without charge. It is also unclear whether airports will be able to prevent or deal with similar attacks in the future. Gatwick says it has spent £5 million on defences since last month’s incident.

Word Watch

£20 million
On Monday, the Evening Standard reported that the cost of the Gatwick incident is expected to run into the tens of millions. Aside from the airport itself, those to lose out include airlines, retailers, hotels and taxis.
Hostile
A country with which the UK has a poor relationship, and which might seek to harm the UK’s interests.
Regulations
Police will also be given greater powers to seize drones and order members of the public to land drones.
Radio technology
There is also technology available to repel drones, known as “geo-fencing”. This prevents drones from flying within restricted areas, such as airports. However, there are concerns that tech-savvy criminals could disable geo-fencing for their drones.
Catch
Another option is catching drones in a net, either fired from a cannon or dropped like a parachute from a higher drone.