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Multipronged approach to disruptive drones needed

By Barry He in London | | Updated: 2019-02-12 23:55
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Drones, no doubt, can be a force for good. A rapidly evolving industry with many applications, PwC estimates that the total market will be worth $127 billion by 2020, and the Chinese drone industry alone is set to be worth $9 billion by then too. In Australia, drones are being trialed to spot dangerous great white sharks and identify drowning swimmers so inflatable pods can be sent out quickly, allowing the swimmers in trouble to reach the shore by themselves. Drones can also be used to help rescue stranded people in mountainous regions, and locate victims in the aftermath of natural disasters. In China’s Sichuan province, drones are being used to deliver emergency medical supplies, including insulin and organs for transplant.

The areas of surveying, delivery, and security are all set to be revolutionized by drones in ways that are hard to conceive today, despite their current widespread use.

However, the accessibility of drone technology is also a significant security risk factor. For less than a couple of hundred dollars, anyone can buy a disruptive flying chunk of metal that weighs several kilograms. The metal components and potential use of explosive lithium batteries presents security concerns at airports, something that has been evident at airports in New York and London in recent months where there were shutdowns and major havoc was caused to hundreds of thousands of passengers.

Pilots around the world have reported close shaves in which drones have narrowly missed jet turbines. Given the fatal damage that birds can cause to airplanes, with much softer bodies, and especially at low altitudes where aircraft find it difficult to recover from such unfortunate collisions, much attention is being directed toward ensuring that such manmade collisions can be prevented by using new technology.

In the UK last year, at Gatwick Airport, military technology was roped in to deal with the threat of drone disruption. While the exact specifics of the measures used were kept under wraps for obvious reasons, many countries around the world are deploying tactics in order to prevent similar occurrences. Despite repeated calls for tighter regulation of drones, physical interventions may be the only way to solve the problem.

One method of talking errant drones is the use of lasers that are fired from a device and that heat up the offending drone on impact, causing it to crashout of the air. Prototypes and models in circulation are capable of a firing range of up to 4 kilometers and are regularly demonstrated at defense conferences around the world. China is a heavy investor into such technology, and Poly Technologies, a company that collaborates with the Chinese government, claims that even drones armored with 5mm plate can be penetrated up to a kilometer away.

The United States army is also a huge fan of anti-drone technology, opting for high power microwave counter-drone systems. Jamming systems that block communication signals between the drone and the operator are also popular, however this banks on the fact that the drones cannot autonomously direct themselves in emergency situations. Given the rapid development of AI technology, such systems are not a sure bet.

The Centre for the Study of the Drone released a statement, saying to South China Morning Post: “Given that we are talking about an emerging technology, it is plausible that a small start-up might come up with a brilliant solution that completely dominates the market – the way that DJI, a Chinese start-up, has become a market leader in the consumer drone sector”. A magical one-size-fits-all fix, however, is yet to emerge on the horizon above all other solutions.

Due to the fact that the drone industry is developing at such a rapid rate, by the time any defense weapon system is tested and proven safe and efficient, it may already be obsolete. A multipronged strategy may therefore be in order, where a combination of interception methods is used. This, combined with increased regulation and mandatory registration of drones and legal flight paths, may go some way to keep unregulated and disruptive drone activity at bay.

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