Airports around the world are vulnerable to drone incursions that could snarl passenger and freight traffic for days. Flight operations in Chengdu, China, the United Arab Emirates and Ottawa, Canada, have been disrupted due to drone activity, the New York Times reported.
While there hasn’t been a significant incursion in the United States at the same level as the disruption at Gatwick, airport and homeland security officials are preparing for just such an event.
No matter if the drone incursions are deliberate or inadvertent, they represent a danger to aircraft. Tests show that even a small drone of two pounds or so could damage a commercial airliner traveling at landing and takeoff speeds. A collision with a drone would be similar to a bird strike that could damage the aircraft’s windshield or engine. The drones carry lithium-ion batteries that carry the risk of fire on impact, according to a BBC report. Also, drones could carry explosives to attack aircraft or other targets.
Regulations in the U.K. limit drones to an altitude of 400 feet and prohibit flying within 1 km of an airport. Rules in the U.S. are similar, with flights also limited to 400 feet and a ban on flying within 5 miles of an airport without Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearance. Of course, experts point out that drone pilots with the intent to cause harm won’t abide by the regulations.
Tracking drones by radar in an airport environment presents some challenges. Radar systems have trouble tracking drones when they hover, and the flood of radio transmissions makes it hard to pick out the drone transmission from the background noise, Insurance Journal reported.
Security contractors are developing an array of anti-drone devices from radio frequency jamming to weighted nets, which can be carried by another drone or fired from a gun. Major civilian drone makers such as DJI include geo-fencing capabilities that prevent drones from flying in certain areas based on GPS coordinates. More extreme countermeasures such as lasers that burn a hole in the drone could cause unintended damage.