Sunday 24 March 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'The potential for catastrophic damage from a €500 consumer toy is very real'

Stock Image: PA
Stock Image: PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Today, Dublin had a glimpse of the disruption that Gatwick Airport faced in December of last year.

A reported sighting of a drone caused Dublin Airport authorities to temporarily suspend flights. Thankfully, the disruption was brief, unlike the chaos caused at Gatwick two months ago.

But it’s a timely reminder of what could so easily happen here now with the proliferation of drones in Ireland.

According to the IAA, there were no significant incidents involving drones and airports in Ireland in 2018. In 2017, there was one such incident, when Cork Airport was briefly closed due to a drone flying in its airspace.

As a rule, airports take sightings of drones very seriously. The potential for catastrophic damage from a €500 consumer toy is very real. We don’t yet know what the effects, for example, of a drone getting into an airplane’s engine would be.

I know a thing or two about drones as I have been flying them in Ireland — and abroad — for some years. You could describe me as an enthusiast. So I know what they’re capable of and also how easy it might be to cause outsized disruption with one.

Today's typical consumer drone has a range of up to 4km from its remote controller.

In Ireland, there are countless urban facilities within that distance of our major airports.

Almost all such drones now have powerful video cameras onboard, with live footage beamed back to the user's smartphone or tablet and which sits on top of the remote control unit.

So you don't need to be looking up in the sky to fly it, observable by patrolling police. You can steer it while being out of sight, hidden behind a bush, a house, or anything else, several kilometres away.

I own two such drones. One is a Phantom 4, with a range of around 3km. The other is a DJI Spark, that travels about 1.5km.

I fly them well away from populated centres or sensitive air space. I never let them out of my sight. But a drone in the wrong hands would be capable of very great mischief.

To be clear, drone manufacturers do incorporate so-called no-fly zones into their systems. This means that the flying devices are programmed to know, via GPS, where airports are located and not to fly into them. However, as one might expect in this internet age, it's not difficult to find workarounds for those determined to cause trouble. And such no-fly zones are not in place in other places where they could do damage.

In Ireland, you don't need a licence or qualifications to fly a drone. You simply need to register it with the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). It's a bit like getting a dog licence, but cheaper.

But because registering them is a manual process online after you buy the drone, it's a fair bet that many people never bother.

So while the IAA says there are currently over 11,000 drones in Ireland, the real figure is probably much higher.

Besides, you only strictly have to register your drone if it weighs over 1kg.

In the Gatwick incident last December, the UK police suggested that the Gatwick drone was not a consumer model. This means, among other things, that it could have started its flight from further away and have a longer battery life. (Consumer drones typically fly for between 15 and 35 minutes per charge.)

But that still doesn't mean that a consumer drone could not cause damage or disruption.

Online Editors

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