The Drone That Took Air Travelers Hostage and Why We Should Worry

Sky terrorist disrupted Gatwick Airport flights for nearly 72 hours — we must prepare for threats, urges op-ed writer

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This week a savvy pilot and his drone managed to take people hostage at a major international airport, without leaving a clue about the identity of the hostage taker.

The sky terrorist disrupted flights in and out of Gatwick Airport just south of London for nearly 72 hours by repeatedly flying a drone over the airstrip in a deliberate act to shut down operations and strand passengers eager to travel for the holidays.

This episode is a stark reminder of what I and other experts in the drone community have been saying for years: We are not prepared for future drone threats. How many times do we have to tell our government agencies that this is a problem before more is done?

That one drone was able to shut down operations at a major international airport should be an embarrassment to aviation officials worldwide, and a lesson to security officials in the U.S.

I’m told the estimated price tag of the airport closure surpasses $250,000 — a mere fraction of what it would have cost to put in place readily available drone countermeasures to defeat it.

U.K. aviation authorities were warned that something like this might happen, but they chose to simply whistle past the threat. I worry that the U.S. may fall into the same trap.

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As a former military intelligence specialist with previous access to some of the most sophisticated and sensitive drone technology in our government’s arsenal, and as the current owner of a consumer drone business that sells thousands of drones every year, I can tell you that the U.S. government should be concerned about the rapid iteration of this technology and the increasing ability for an average citizen to employ it for nefarious purposes.

The problem is going to get bigger than anyone thinks, and fast.

A number of start-ups have emerged within the last few years whose purpose is to create technology solutions to counter the emerging drone industry and the problems in our skies that it will surely cause. In fact, as of 2018, there are reportedly over 230 counter-drone products globally made by over 155 different manufacturers.

Various solutions already exist today that can help. Most companies are trying to solve the problem by working on “detect, identify and defeat” solutions. Those solutions include a mix of radio frequency jammers to geo-locate and shut down the drone, spoofing technology that can take over the controls from the operator, and radar that can detect and track a drone’s current location mid-flight.

Airports should employ an electronic jamming system to immediately defeat devices that enter the airspace.

The truth is that we are in the midst of a drone revolution, and the technology will one day be a part of all our lives. Whether it’s taking incredible aerial photographs, delivering holiday packages, collecting data for scientists, or even saving endangered species in some far-flung land, drones will change the way we live.

Because there is currently no one-size-fits-all solution for countering rogue drones, a layered approach is needed.

First, all of our major airports at a minimum should employ a technology called Aeroscope, which is a counter-drone system created by DJI, the largest manufacturer of consumer drones worldwide. The system gives law enforcement authorities the ability to track the location of any drone that is turned on or flying within a certain radius. It provides not only the drone’s location, but also its serial number, type, and direction of flight. It is already being employed by law enforcement at sporting events, public gatherings, and certain airports, but its adoption needs to be more widespread.

Second, these airports should employ an electronic jamming system to immediately defeat devices that enter the airspace. Drone jammers are currently available in many forms, including guns like the ones created by engineers at IXI Technologies, that direct signals to break the connection between the drone pilot and the drone, either knocking it out of the sky or forcing it to automatically return home.

Third, we need to pump money into the development of audio detection solutions, which is an area that holds great potential for countering future rogue drones. What most don’t know is that each drone has its own audio signature — kind of like fingerprints — when flying. These audio “fingerprints” can be used to identify the location and trajectory of the drone in flight.

Small microphones can be installed around the defended area whereby the system is able to track those “fingerprints” within milliseconds, alerting monitors behind the system of the impending threat. Currently, we don’t have a system like this built for drones, but the U.S. has systems like this for other potential military threats.

Fourth, the U.S. needs to start working more closely with major drone manufacturers and force them to put in place countermeasures internal to the drones in the event of an emergency. As it stands now, most drones have what is known as geo-fencing which automatically blocks flight around large stadiums, airports and sensitive government facilities. The problem, however, is that with simple hacks available online, this geo-fencing technology can be rendered useless.

Finally, it’s time for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to wake up and move faster to modernize its operations and develop a robust infrastructure to monitor and track drones in the airspace. Officials there have been talking about using something known as Remote Identification for years, making it a requirement that each drone has the ability to be remotely identified by authorities mid-flight if required in an emergency.

They have talked about this but have yet to move forward with plans. There are also archaic laws still in place that relate to using drone countermeasures, and in many cases, officials are unable to use jamming devices to their full extent for fear that other communications will be disrupted in the process.

The FAA needs to work with other agencies to carve outlaws that allow the use of this technology in certain situations before it’s too late.

Until then, it’s up to us to make sure our officials don’t lag behind and to ensure our critical infrastructure is prepared for what’s to come.

Brett Velicovich is a world-renowned drone expert, former member of the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force, and a national security specialist. He is also the CEO of Expert Drones. This Fox News opinion piece is used by permission.

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