Techbeat: Drone threats

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 8th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: troublesome drones. 

London’s Gatwick Airport shut down in December for nearly two days. Hundreds of flights got cancelled and tens of thousands of passengers endured disrupted travel.

The reason? Commercial drones flying over or near the airport. Gatwick Airport police reported dozens of drone sightings over just those two days.

No aircraft collided with any of the drones. But the UK Airport Board reported that in 2017, there were 92 near collisions. And it’s illegal in the UK to fly a drone within six-tenths of a mile of an airport or higher than 400 feet.

REICHARD: These tiny quadcopters are getting more and more popular. That means it’s likely such incidents will keep happening. UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling vented his frustration over the Gatwick incident in an interview with the BBC:

GRAYLING: We genuinely don’t know if this is a single individual with a grudge of some sort, or whether it’s a group of some sort. There is no yet, simple, commercial-off-the-shelf technology that can guarantee to dispose of, to prevent a drone from coming close to an airport.

REICHARD: What can governments around the world do to solve  the problem of these “rogue” drones? WORLD Radio’s technology reporter Michael Cochrane is here now to talk about emerging “counter-drone” technology.

Michael, the law obviously didn’t stop whoever is responsible for the Gatwick drones. But other nations have tried regulation, as well?

MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: Yes, they have. In the U.S., Federal Aviation Administration regulations require all drones to be registered. And they can’t be flown within five miles of an airport. There are similar restrictions around sensitive government facilities like military bases.

But the problem is that commercial drone use is expanding faster than government regulation can keep up with it. Most drone operators want to obey the laws, but the real risk comes from those who are – according to one official – “clueless, careless or criminal.”

REICHARD: What kind of damage could occur if a plane collides with a drone?

 COCHRANE: So far, no collisions have resulted in a crash. But tests overseen by the FAA suggest that a 2-pound drone could inflict more damage on a commercial airliner than a bird strike. Plus, the lithium-ion batteries in the drones might not shatter on impact and could lodge inside the plane, potentially starting a fire. Right now the risk of severe damage is small but not insignificant.

REICHARD: So what’s being done to counter this threat? Is someone building a national anti-drone system or something?

COCHRANE: As of now there’s no national technological system to deal with the risk of drones. But there is an emerging counter-drone industry. Lots of private actors are developing and rolling out systems that can track, disable, or even destroy rogue drones. The closest thing that comes to an industry-wide safety feature is something called geo-fencing.

REICHARD: OK, I’ve heard of geocaching, but not geo-fencing.

COCHRANE: It’s a technology built into the software of the drone itself that prevents it from flying in certain locations and warns operators they’re approaching a restricted area. Kind of a virtual perimeter based on GPS data. When it hits the invisible “fence,” the drone automatically returns to the operator. It’s kinda like when you try to take a cart out of some grocery store parking lots, the wheels lock up—it’s a similar concept.

DJI is the world’s leading seller of civilian drones, and it began deploying geo-fencing on all its products in 2013. It has data for all current airports as well as prisons and even nuclear power plants.

REICHARD: Do federal regulations require this geo-fencing on all drones?

COCHRANE: It’s voluntary right now. But even geo-fencing systems aren’t ideal. There are ways to unlock the system for authorized users, but a determined rogue drone operator could also hack into the system and bypass it.

REICHARD: So are there ways to take these things down if one gets near an airport?

COCHRANE: Yes, but it’s not so simple. You don’t want to fire a bullet at a drone because even if you hit it, the bullet could pass right through the drone and continue flying for thousands of feet.

So some companies are actually using nets. They launch them from either another drone or a shoulder-mounted device. The nets stop the drone’s rotor blades from spinning, and it falls out of the sky.

Both the U.S. and China have demonstrated a laser that can burn through the drone and disable it. Dutch police even experimented with a program where they trained eagles to see the drones as prey and bring them down by latching their talons on the propellers.

REICHARD: Well, that certainly is getting creative! But let’s say you have a drone that is about to fly over a sports stadium or another event and authorities think it might be carrying an explosive. You wouldn’t want it falling to the ground in the middle of a huge crowd, right?

COCHRANE: No, which is why the most promising counter-drone technology is probably jamming. An anti-drone system like that would detect and locate the drone using a combination of cameras, radar and radio frequency detectors. Then it would send powerful, directed radio signals toward the drone that would essentially “jam” the communication between the device and the operator. That initiates a default mode that automatically sends the drone back to its controller.

Such a system could also potentially locate the operator as well, which would help law enforcement.

REICHARD: Is there any progress on a national counter-drone system in the U.S.?

COCHRANE: The federal government is working with state and local governments on counter-drone initiatives, however federal regulations supersede those of state and local governments when it comes to countering drones. Historically, the U.S. military has had the lead role in counter-drone initiatives, but in October, congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 which significantly expands counter-drone authority to state and local governments.

REICHARD: Michael Cochrane is our science and technology correspondent. Thanks, Michael!

COCHRANE: You’re very welcome, Mary.

(Photo/John Stillwell, PA via AP, File)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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