Gatwick’s Drone Debacle Should Be a Wake-Up Call
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Season’s greetings, travelers! Here’s something new to worry about: Your trip may be disrupted by drones.
This week, London Gatwick, Britain’s second-busiest airport, had to be shut twice after unmanned aerial vehicles entered its airspace in what police called a “deliberate act.” Some 10,000 passengers were diverted, hundreds of flights were delayed, and chaos reigned on the ground. The army had to be called in.
Worldwide, drones are proliferating madly. That’s mostly a good thing: In addition to hobbyists, they’re now being used by filmmakers and farmers, police officers and firefighters, utilities, insurers, retailers, and more. By one estimate, they could boost the U.K.’s economy by 42 billion pounds by 2030, adding 600,000 jobs, as companies find new ways to take advantage of them. The best uses probably haven’t occurred to anyone yet.
As this week’s debacle shows, however, UAVs can also cause mayhem. In Britain last year, drone incidents involving aircraft rose to 93, from 71 in 2016. Cases like Gatwick, involving the closure of a commercial airport, are still rare, but that could easily change. Terrorists and drug dealers are using the technology, along with an astonishingly wide array of other miscreants.
There are no simple solutions to this problem. But as the world grapples with the drone phenomenon, for better and worse, a few principles are worth keeping in mind.
One is that rules help. Britain has already enacted some sensible restrictions, including prohibiting drones from flying above 400 feet or near airports. Owners of big UAVs will soon have to register them and complete a safety test. Although imperfect, this is the right way to get the attention of careless hobbyists: Violations can result in fines or jail time. Many drones now come with built-in sensors — known as geo-fencing — that can prevent them from entering no-go zones; mandating such gear for new models would make sense.
Those intent on doing serious harm — as the Gatwick perpetrators seemed to be — make for a much harder problem. But here, a second principle is useful: Focus on technology, as the market is already doing. Experiments in drone defense have ranged from low-tech (birds, nets) to futuristic (lasers, more drones). In recent years, the U.K. has used radio jamming to prevent UAVs from delivering drugs to prison inmates. Drone-detection technology — including electro-optic sensors, thermal imagers, acoustic detectors, and more — is getting more sophisticated.
All these approaches have their flaws. And as threats evolve, it’s likely that some combination will be needed. But airports and other sensitive sites will need to invest in such defenses. Governments should be willing to help. And the poor traveling public should prepare for a rocky few years ahead. In time, and with some forethought, drones may come to resemble many other worries of the digital age: a problem, but a manageable one.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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