Monday 14 October 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'In the wrong hands, a €500 consumer gadget can cause all kinds of mayhem'


Stock Image: PA
Stock Image: PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The frightening thing about what happened in Gatwick Airport is how easy it might be to perpetrate with the kind of drone currently on sale in shops for Christmas.

Today's €500 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.

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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 11,197 drones in Ireland, the real figure is probably much higher.

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

It is worth pointing out that UK police say 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 have done at least some of what was reportedly perpetrated in the British airport.

According to the IAA, there have been no significant incidents involving drones and airports in Ireland this year. Last year there was one such incident, when Cork Airport was briefly closed due to a drone flying in its airspace.

Irish Independent

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