Aerial drones have the potential to cause damage and disruption far in excess of what their relatively low price tag would suggest. With Australia’s aviation watchdog estimating the country is home to more than 120,000 drones, how can we combat the threat of an attack? Michelle Wheeler reports.
Six days before Christmas last year, a drone sighting plunged Gatwick Airport, in London, into chaos.
From 19 to 21 December – and with continued reports of drone activity – more than 1,000 flights were cancelled or diverted, throwing holiday plans into disarray for 140,000 passengers.
It was Gatwick’s biggest disruption since the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud of 2010.
A drone enthusiast and his wife were arrested over the Gatwick incident but later cleared of any involvement.
So why did a drone shut down Britain’s second busiest airport for three days?
The West Australian aviation editor Geoffrey Thomas says there’s no doubt drones could cause the loss of an aeroplane. “The drones have ceramic and metal parts; they would be ingested into an engine and you’d definitely lose the engine straight away,” he says.
“If you had a few drones, like a few birds, you could lose two engines.
“The other thing that can happen is they can crash into the windshield of the aeroplane and smash it.
“It would be a freak event, but these freak events are happening a little bit too often and it’s of deep concern.”
Western Australia is far from immune.
Less than three weeks before the Gatwick chaos, a pilot spotted a drone while taking off from Perth Airport.
And in 2009, a radio-controlled model plane came within seconds of colliding with a 160-seat Virgin Blue 737 in Perth.
Thomas says at the moment we are probably dealing with “irresponsible idiots”, but there is potential for a more sinister drone attack.
“I know that sounds like a science fiction fantasy, but the technology is there for these drones to be amassed – five or ten of them – and pre-programmed to attack a target,” he says.
ECU Security Research Institute director Professor Craig Valli says while there are a lot of good uses for drones, criminals have been quick to catch on to their capabilities.
And it is easy for anyone to pick up a drone, from a $29.95 model to sophisticated products costing tens of thousands of dollars.
“There’s nothing stopping you now going down and buying one of the mid-range drones for about $1,200 and starting to fly it yourself,” Valli says.
“It can run for 20 to 45 minutes and carry payloads of up to two kilograms.
“That can be used for anything, from dropping drugs into prisons, [or] in the case of a terrorist attack it could be used to disperse either poisons or neurotoxins.”
In addition to being used in theatres of war, drones are a “pervert’s paradise”, Valli says.
“Some are using them to invade people’s privacy… flying over parties or someone sunbaking in the backyard,” he says.
Because drones use radio technology, people with malicious intent can relatively easily work out how to compromise and take over drones already in the air.
Despite the risks, Valli says it is not all doom and gloom.
He points to the work ECU cyber security students have been undertaking as part of the University's Summer of Cyber program.
During the seven‑week paid internship through the ECU Security Research Institute, students worked on several research projects including a promising radio frequency system to detect drones in the air.
Called Spectrum Watch, the system uses an array of WiFi sensors to monitor signals sent between a drone and its controller. It then uses a variety of tools to either take control of the drone or disable it in real time.
The students also tackled the challenge of extracting information from a recovered drone.
Using digital forensics techniques, the students investigated the drone’s origin, where it was flying, any images or video it recorded and finally tracked down the pilots.
Cyber security student Harneet Kaur was part of the Summer of Cyber program.
“It’s very important for people to know what the security issues with them are,” Kaur says.
“You can’t just buy a $30 or $40 drone and be sure that it is secure.
“These drones do not have any security protocols. It is very easy to break into them when they’re flying, and then take control of them.”
Valli says one of the outcomes of the Summer of Cyber research project was five new standard operating procedure sheets, showing law enforcement agencies how to extract information of intelligence interest from five drone models.
He says the detection work also reached a proof-of concept milestone, and he believes the project has strong commercialisation potential.
But the technology is changing fast, with drones becoming cheaper and more sophisticated every year.
“[A drone worth] $180 can fly as high as 500 metres, and it can fly for 23 minutes,” Valli says.
“We’ve got a commercial drone we bought six years ago for $5,000 and [the $180 drone] is actually able to fly longer in terms of duration… and still take all the imagery.”
Valli says people are being “hapless idiots” with drones because they’re failing to think through the consequences.
“Some of the drones we’ve picked up in the $300-and-under club weigh about 2.5 kilograms – so they’re the same as someone throwing a rock at a car window,” he says.
“It could potentially kill someone.”
Thomas says regulators have “got a tiger by the tail”.
“It is really out of control because these drones can be used for all sorts of sinister tactics,” he says.
Valli agrees, adding we are “hopelessly unprepared” for the threat drones pose.
The ECU research won’t stop, he says, with students continuing to work on the detection system and drone forensics projects this semester.
“We’ll keep moving forward and collaborating with law enforcement and other people who have an interest in developing these things to protect Australian citizens,” Valli says.
Any breakthroughs will be music to the ears of airports around the world.
Says Thomas: “The aviation industry is really grappling with this.”
“We are having too many incidents with [drones] and they seem to be increasing at a fairly alarming rate.”
Even if you’re flying for fun, you must not operate your drone in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property.
Follow these rules every time you fly:
Other restrictions may be enforced by local councils or in national parks to protect visitors and wildlife and, as is the case at Uluru, to respect cultural sensitivities.
Download the free ‘Can I fly there?’ app at casa.gov.au/droneapp
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