How do airports keep rogue drones out?

You may remember that in December 2018, hundreds of flights were cancelled at Gatwick Airport in London, following reports of drone sightings close to the runway. At the time Police said that although the drones were not linked to terrorism they had been flown as “deliberate act” of disruption, using “industrial specification” drones. However, this left many people questioning what would airports do if this were to happen again and if the response would have been different if intent was to cause harm.

Airports and drones: The law

Firstly, it should be noted that it is illegal to fly a drone within a restricted air space, across the globe.

In the UK this is up to five kilometres of an airport or airfield boundary, as of March 2019, and flying above 400ft (120m) is also prohibited – as this increases the risk of a collision with a manned aircraft. Endangering the safety of an aircraft is a criminal offence, which can carry a prison sentence of five years.

In the US, you must be at least five miles away to operate without notifying the control tower of your activity. If you plan to fly closer, notice must be given to the airport operator or air traffic control tower. To see exactly where the restricted airspace is the US you can use an interactive map here. The FAA could fine you up to $27,500 for civil penalties and/or up to $250,000 for criminal penalties.

Please be aware drone airspace laws vary by country and so we recommend double checking the rules in your country before flying a drone to be safe. Flying responsibly is the key to preventing the majority of these instances where people simply do not know the rules.

Can drones be stopped from flying over airports?

In principle, yes, they can, however it’s not easy in practice. Drones are too small to be picked up by traditional radar. This means they often have to be spotted by eye and so any action to stop them is slow and inaccurate.

Radio jammers can also work to disrupt drones from two kilometres away. The devices stop signals used by remote controls. When activated, this triggers a drone’s in-built “return to home” function allowing it to land safely.

In addition, many drones also contain geofencing software, which prevents pilots from flying them into sensitive airspace, such as over airports, military bases and national parks. Nonetheless, people who are technologically-savvy and want to cause disruption can get around this by building their own drone and tweaking the firmware and software.

Those airports that have had first-hand experience with drones have often put in place military-grade counter-drone systems to prevent similar instances in the future. These systems comprise 360-degree radar and thermal imaging systems, as well as even more powerful radio jammers. For example, Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington DC has a 30-nautical mile network of radio jammers to try to stop drones entering the airport’s airspace.

Should we shoot the drones out of the sky?

In theory, we can shoot drones, however doing this runs the risk of stray bullets landing in odd places and the falling drones could also cause damage. We would also need something that is powerful enough to reach the drone but that wouldn’t do extensive damage to the surroundings if it missed, for instance. So, while authorities have explored this option, it is not the first priority unless they believe the drone will cause more damage, like in a terrorist attack.

What other solutions may work in the future?

Some slightly more unorthodox approaches to dealing with rogue drones are also in trial, for instance, larger drones that can hunt for the rogue drone in the air. These larger drones shoot a net from a distance of 10 to 15 meters to capture the offending drone, after which they bring the rogue drone down to the ground safely.

Birds of prey, such as eagles, have also been trained to take down drones in the past. In a dramatic video shared by the Dutch police, you can see the birds deftly catching drones in mid-air. However, the birds ultimately proved to be too expensive to train for the task, according to Dutch media.

We hope you found this post informative. If you have any questions about drones please leave a comment in the section below, and check out some other similar posts here: