Drones: a Double-Edged Sword
The Widespread Availability of Drones has Become Both a Commercial Opportunity and a Threat
The positive potential of drones in surveillance and security is largely untapped. A focus on the risks has been taking precedence. The immediate imperative is to protect sensitive airspace from unauthorized penetration, whether deliberate or accidental. Andrea Sorri, Business Development Director, Government, City Surveillance and Critical Infrastructure for Axis explains the current predicament.
At the beginning of July this year, it was reported that five flights on their final approach to London’s Gatwick Airport – the UK’s second busiest – had to be diverted when the airport’s single runway had to be closed twice after a drone was sighted within the airport perimeter. In addition to the five diversions to other airports, a number of approaching planes were put into holding patterns until the runway was reopened. The disruption to passengers and additional cost to the airlines involved are obvious. Although it‘s unknown whether the incident was accidental or malicious, this represents just a single recent example of a growing problem for airports and other sensitive locations. Indeed, in 2016, 70 near misses between drones and aircraft were reported, more than double the previous year.
‘Drone’ has become the common term for what is formally called an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). However, UAV can mean any pilotless aircraft, from highly-sophisticated (and expensive) military equipment designed to undertake dangerous operations, to consumer products that have now become so low-cost as to be an attractive toy for children. In fact, UAVs in the form of remote-control aircraft have been available for recreational use for decades. But it is the general availability and accessibility of drones to the mass consumer market – along with the increasing number of applications – that have driven their adoption in recent years and, with it, the inherent risks.
The positive potential for drones is obvious. In both commercial and consumer applications – from photography to product deliveries, policing to agriculture, conservation to racing – drones are finding their way into numerous business activities. Live feeds from high-definition cameras and even thermal imaging mean that areas and applications previously inaccessible by helicopter can now be reached by a relatively cost-effective means. As always, whenever a new technology is developed, those with more nefarious aims and criminal intent will also look to exploit the potential. This is certainly the case with UAVs.
While the majority of incidents of drones flying into an airport’s perimeter are likely to be accidental – even though they present a significant risk – in other situations, criminal intent is far more likely. For instance, the matter of drones being used to smuggle contraband into prisons – typically drugs and mobile phones – has become so commonplace in the UK, that the government has established a specialist squad to address the problem. Commentators have also pointed to the horrifying potential of drones being turned into flying bombs or even small chemical weapons by terrorist groups. Camera-equipped drones could also be used to covertly survey sensitive military or government sites, or for corporate espionage in a commercial environment.
For example, a largely overlooked risk potential from drones is their use by hackers. Researchers have demonstrated a startling hacking technique, using drones to detect vulnerabilities in ‘air-gapped’ computers. These gaps are installed as a network security measure to ensure that a secured computer network is physically isolated from an unsecured network, potentially infected with malware. The researchers demonstrated how, once a computer is infected, a drone with a camera can be deployed to hover outside a window, near the hardware. Detected through electromagnetic signals, the transmitting computer can be located by the drone and capture data through LED signals emitted by the hard drive.
The risks presented by drones has become so great that is has captured the attention of regulators. In the UK, the government recently announced new regulations that will require owners of drones weighing more than 250g to be registered, and to show that they understand the safety and privacy laws that affect their use. Britain’s aviation minister, Lord Callanan, highlighted the desire to balance safety and the positive potential for drones in announcing the regulations: “Our measures prioritizes protecting the public while maximizing the full potential of drones. Increasingly, drones are proving vital for inspecting transport infrastructure for repair or aiding police and fire services in search and rescue operations, even helping to save lives.”
However, there are clear issues with such regulation: firstly, that many drones available on the high street weigh less than 250g and could still represent significant threats in several ways and, secondly, those individuals or groups with criminal intent are unlikely to respect the need to register their drones.
It is imperative, therefore, that any organization that could be potentially affected by the risks associated with drones takes steps to protect itself through a combination of technologies. One highly-effective solution is the combination of high-definition network video cameras with sensors and analytical software to detect, monitor and control drones entering an organization’s airspace.
Anti-drone security platform provider Dedrone has developed a platform solution that aggregates data from its detector sensors and advanced video analytic algorithms. Using video footage from Axis Communications network cameras that establish wide area detection, this enables visual localization and allows for the mitigation of any drone threat. The solution’s user interface can provide automated visual alarms and notifications and allows for the protection of sensitive sites: detecting, tracking and monitoring for drones 24/7, providing real-time alerts and identifying potential threats, even when these are several hundred feet above ground.
Once detected, drone mitigation can take several forms. For example, some drones come with ‘geo fencing’ technology, meaning that they will not fly into restricted zones. This can be easily overcome if the drone’s operator so wishes. More complex but effective solutions include jamming the drone’s radio-frequency, signal disturbance by laser, counter drone deployment, fog bombs, deployment of nets from the ground or from counter drones and even the use of firearms. However, many of these potential solutions are still subject to approval from regulators and several carry obvious associated risks of their own.
It is clear that the threat presented by drones – whether entirely innocent, or planned with malicious intent – is real and increasing. From both a safety and security perspective and a number of commercial aspects, it is essential that organizations of all types recognize the risks to their business, employees and customers and act now.