22-24 Jul 2020
Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre

Drones cause security breach in UK’s biggest airports – and it could happen in Australia

When it comes to Christmas presents, drones rate highly on the wish lists of many children - and adults as well. But for thousands of commuters in 2018, drones put a significant downer on their Christmas celebrations due to a security breach.

Three of the flying devices were spotted at Gatwick Airport in the UK, which caused it to shut down from December 19-21 with thousands of flights impacted.

It caused chaos, with planes stuck on the tarmac, re-routed to other airports and reaching as far as France with planes stuck in holding patterns.

The scary thing for Australians is that the same thing could easily happen here, if a drone operator were to angle their device in the direction of one of our major airports.

The current security at Australian airports

In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, security measures at Australian airports have ramped up considerably.

Increased screening, bomb detection methods, exclusion zones, radar and CCTV monitoring and greater security presences have made airports safer than ever.

But all of this increased security would do little to stop a drone.

Drone expert Professor Ron Bartsch told SBS News the Gatwick incident could just as easily happen at Sydney airport today, because there are no international standards to prevent drones from entering the airspace of a major airport.

“There are 2,000 different manufacturers of drones throughout the world, and until there are international standards, you’re not going to be able to control that technology,” he said.

Drone legislation in Australia

One thing Australia has in place that positions us ahead of the rest of the world – including the UK – is robust drone legislation.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has clear guidelines on where drone operators can fly, which includes staying 5.5km away from any major airport and not straying more than 120 metres from ground level.

There is even a smartphone app launched by CASA that will show you exactly where and where you cannot fly a drone. Heavy penalties apply for those that breach those guidelines.

Unfortunately there will always be rogue operators, though, and those who don’t check where they are allowed to fly.

The lessons learned from Gatwick

Following the drone incident at Gatwick, the airport has spent £5m on counter-drone technology. But the damage had already been done, with a spokesman for the airport suggesting that cancellations would amount to costs of at least £20m. Other estimates suggest the final cost could end up being in the ‘tens of millions of pounds’.

Heathrow airport recently had flights suspended because a drone was spotted. Following the event, drone tracking radar was installed to spot drones long before they entered the airspace of Europe’s busiest two-runway airport.

Government has acted swiftly in England as well, rolling out the testing and evaluation of counter-drone technology at airports and widening the exclusion zone to approximately a three-mile radius.

Acting retrospectively means the airports can be protected against future incidents, but does little to ease the burden of the damage already done. Which is why Australian airports need to heed the warning of this incident and act before a drone shuts down the entire domestic network.

The Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in 2018 was a step in the right direction. High-tech anti-drone guns were employed by police officers which effectively jam the signal between pilot and drone, rendering the drone useless.

It is security measures like this that Australia needs to adopt, or risk an incident like Gatwick happening on our shores.

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