02-06-2016 | By Paul Whytock
How would you like to be on an aircraft that was hit by a drone while taking off or landing? The answer is of course that you wouldn’t. Yet in April this year that’s exactly what happened to a British Airways Airbus A320 destined for London Heathrow Airport. The pilot reported that a drone had struck the front of the aircraft.
Following news of that drone strike was an announcement by America’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) saying that there have been 175 reports of drones spotted close to airports or in restricted airspace in the last six months alone, with 25 classified as near-collision incidents.
While you might think a relatively small drone would cause little damage to a large passenger aircraft, think again. If that drone gets sucked into an aircraft engine during take-off or landing it could be catastrophic.
Yet drones capable of flying at heights that do represent an aviation hazard are readily available to any half-witted consumer who fails to see the dangerous implications of flying in any area near to airports. And those people exist. Only recently police apprehended a person in central London flying a drone high over the river Thames, a well know flight path for aircraft approaching either London Heathrow or London City airport. And remember some hobbyist drones can now reach heights of 2000 feet.
So should drone ownership be subject to licensing, height and territorial limitations? In my view it’s a no brainer.
But what are authorities doing about it? The answer in this country is not a lot apart from spouting off to the media a few stunningly obvious words on how drones can represent a danger to aircraft.
However, one country that is taking the situation seriously is America. The FAA has plans to adopt some form of drone control in potentially dangerous areas and is currently evaluating technology developed by British companies. Ideally what the FAA would like is to be able to detect and then if necessary bring down any threatening drone.
Obviously the FAA’s rationale is directed at keeping aircraft safe but other US organisations will probably be closely watching this trial of drone busting equipment with a view to its viability regarding drone activities that may have criminal or terrorist motivations.
So what is this equipment? It’s called Blighter AUDS (Anti-UAV Defence System) and is a counter drone system that is designed to disrupt and neutralise unmanned aerial vehicles. The system combines radar target detection, electro-optical (EO) tracking and classification and a directional RF inhibition capability. It can track and classifying before providing the option to bring a drone down.
The system is the creation of three British companies, Enterprise Control Systems, Blighter Surveillance Systems and Chess Dynamics.
Blighter Surveillance Systems provides the Blighter A400 Series Air Security Radar to detect drones in all weather conditions. The Chess Dynamics Hawkeye Deployable System and EO Video Tracker feature a long-range colour camera and a high sensitivity thermal imager as well as video tracking technology. This is able to track the drone and, combined with radar target information, classify the target. The system has a range of approximately 5 miles.
The operator is then able to make a decision to use the Enterprise Control Systems smart RF inhibitor. Enterprise Control Systems has experience of RF Electronic counter-measure systems and advanced data links. This has been used in the AUDS directional jammer that can interfere with the C2 channels on the drone allowing the system to terminate the drone's mission.
So that in effect takes care of dangerous drones but what about catching the operators? In a move that could facilitate that, America’s FAA is now working with a company called CACI International to test a technology that tracks the radio signals used to control drones. This technology also has a range of about 5 miles and is capable of pinpointing the location of the operator.
So it seems likely that America will make its airports safer from dangerous drones and it may do so using British designed equipment.
This of course begs the obvious question why aren’t the Civil Aviation Authority and Government of this country following the American example when it comes to air safety, particularly as we are talking about a British product?