Yesterday’s dramatic closure of the UK’s Gatwick airport because of drone activity has raised the interest in additional UAV regulation to a new level. The airport remained closed for nearly an entire day after at least 50 reports of drones over or near the runways, and around 1,000 flights have been canceled — so the incident is certainly clear as a call to action for those looking to tighten regulations on drones. However, as with regulating in general, simply making up rules doesn’t necessarily solve the problems. We’ll walk through some of the current rules for hobbyist drones in the US (they are fairly similar in the UK, as it turns out), and the technology used now and likely in the future to enforce them.
Hobbyist Drones in the US in a Nutshell
The FAA governs drones while in flight. That’s an important point, as that means in most cases property owners can restrict you from taking off, landing, or operating a drone from their land. But they can’t restrict you from flying over their land unless they have gotten the FAA involved, or you are violating some other regulation. For example, it is not legal (in general) to launch or land a drone in a US National Park, but you can fly over one unless you are doing something unsafe, harassing wildlife, and so on. It is, however, illegal to fly near an airport without appropriate clearance because the FAA has made that part of its airspace regulations.
That makes the FAA Getting Started with a UAS website the best place to learn the current rules for drone hobbyists. (If you’re using a drone commercially, you’ll need an actual license that requires taking a course and a test.) In short form, those rules are to register your drone, fly below 400 feet, keep your drone in sight, and honor airspace regulations. There are also some common sense tips, like don’t fly near aircraft or airports, over groups of people, or near emergency responder activity. There have already been several incidents of wildfire air drops being impacted by hobbyist drones in the area.
Implementing Common-Sense Flying
There are some slick, free tools for drone pilots to use when checking to see whether they can fly. Airmap is my favorite. It shows various types of potential issues and restrictions, ranging from the locked-down airspace around the US Capitol and National Park boundaries to first-responder incidents, airports, and even helipads. In my case, I check Airmap via the web before I decide on and drive to a potential flight location, then double-check with my phone before launching, in case there is a temporary no-fly zone in effect. What is even more impressive about Airmap is that it seems to do a good job covering much of the world, as I’ve been able to rely on it on several overseas trips.
Some areas have a lot of small airstrips or airports that aren’t very active. Traditionally it has been possible to call them and ask for permission to fly within the 5-mile radius around them. However, that process is at best hit-or-miss and doesn’t result in a digital record of the event. More recently, automated systems are being put in place, so that pilots can ask for permission right from their flight planning app, specifying their planned time and route.
Most high-performance consumer drones sold today, including those from DJI, have multiple levels of geo-fencing built in. The exact areas that are protected and the way policies are enforced changes with each new firmware update and are typically getting more aggressive over time. Currently, for example, your DJI drone won’t launch if its GPS locates it within the Washington, DC no-fly zone. Attempting to fly from outside one of the top-level no-fly zones into it will reportedly stop your drone and even crash it if you persist.
However, if you’re simply near a small airport, you need to confirm to DJI’s software that you understand the issue and have sufficient permission to fly. DJI has been fairly quick to adapt to changing regulations, so I suspect that if additional laws are enacted, additional limits will be placed on where and how DJI drones can fly. Obviously, all of this protection only applies to pilots who purchase drones off the shelf and don’t hack them to avoid built-in limitations. So it is unlikely to stop any serious lawbreakers and currently doesn’t limit those who build their own drones.
In-Flight IDs for Drones
Manned aircraft use transponders so that control towers can identify them. Currently, those transponders are too large and expensive for use on small drones, but that is changing. It is quite possible that we’ll see a similar system for drones over a certain size, or capable of flying over a certain distance. Of course, that also means that airport control towers would have to be equipped to watch for and monitor these new signals. This would certainly help in the case of a wayward hobbyist drone but doesn’t seem likely to stop a determined criminal or terrorist.
Beyond Geofencing: Drone Countermeasures
As a practical matter, it is likely that major airports are going to need to invest in drone countermeasures, whether or not additional drone laws are passed. Unfortunately, typical airport radar can’t see or identify small drones or tell them apart from birds in many cases. New, dedicated systems are needed. Typically these include a high-resolution radar to locate small objects, coupled with a high-performance telephoto camera that can then zoom in on the objects and recognize which are birds and which are drones. Some systems also include RF, audio, and thermal sensors that can be used to match the suspect drone’s emissions with known models and signals.
However, in the case of someone determined to cause trouble, the drone countermeasures will need to have an active way to cripple or crash an offending drone. Various technologies have been brought into play to accomplish this, most notably including training birds of prey to attack them. Companies like DroneShield have started offering full-spectrum protection, going beyond detection and identification to include active jamming to cause a drone to force land. Of course, radio jamming only works if the drone is being actively controlled, so the option of GPS jamming is also provided.
It is unlikely that even the best anti-drone system will be entirely foolproof against a determined terrorist. But it would certainly both make it much harder to use drones to interfere with flight operations and also provide more warning and information in the event that disruption does occur.
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