MELBOURNE: The issue of rogue drone operators has entered the minds of Singaporeans in the past few months, after unidentified drones disrupted operations at Changi Airport on two occasions in June, resulting in delays and diversions to more than 60 flights.
While there have been no arrests so far in this case, investigations are continuing. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has emphasised the incursions at Changi Airport are receiving “top-level attention”.
On a more global scale, amid tensions in the Persian Gulf over the Trump administration’s pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran and the Middle Eastern country’s persisting disputes with US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over a host of issues, an American navy ship claimed to have used an anti-drone system to crash an Iranian drone.
These incidents at Changi and the Persian Gulf follow the closure of London’s Gatwick Airport for more than 30 hours over three days in December last year due to drone sightings, which created travel chaos for about 140,000 passengers in the midst of the Christmas peak period.
TIGHTER RESTRICTIONS IN SINGAPORE
Coming back to Singapore, the Government has tightened requirements around drone usage. Newly introduced legislation will require all drones operating in Singapore to be registered by the end of this year, while pilots of "large or capable drones" will have to be licensed.
In addition, a proposed central flight management system will allow the monitoring of drones islandwide, let authorities check if they are operating under valid permits, and alert operators who breach regulations.
While such legislation and regulatory efforts are laudable, unfortunately, they will not be effective against rogue drone operators or those operating drones with deliberately malicious objectives and have no intention of registering with authorities.
An effective framework to swiftly investigate and prosecute those who violate the rules will be needed.
Moreover, although two men were charged with flying drones within 5km of Paya Lebar Airbase without the required permits, it was clear the effort and time needed to trace errant drone operators would be onerous if the perpetrators were not caught red-handed or if there was a lack of witnesses, photographs or video evidence of the misdeed.
There is also the issue that prosecutions after the fact do not mitigate the damage wrought by the actual act.
For example, the Gatwick airport disruptions was estimated to cost 50 million pounds (S$85.1 million), with the airlines affected bearing the brunt of it given the additional fuel costs from delayed aircraft and compensation to affected customers.
The costs to the airport was miniscule by comparison, estimated at just £1.4m (S$2.38 million) although the airport has since spent a further £4m (S$6.81 million) on counter-drone systems.
THE EMERGING CHALLENGE
The use of privately-operated drones has taken off in the past few years, as the price point of commercially available drones has dropped to affordable levels and lowered the barrier to entry for consumers.
Drones have found use in work as varied as aerial survey to delivering much-needed medicines to remote areas. A growing hobbyist drone community has emerged alongside these real-world uses.
However, these developments have created wicked regulatory and other challenges, arising from the fact that a privately-owned drone is, nevertheless, still an aircraft using national airspace.
No matter how small the drone is or how limited its operating altitudes are, it can still pose a huge threat to the manned private and commercial air traffic operating in the same area.
A drone colliding with a commercial airliner while it is taking off or landing can cause severe complications to the flight, even if it doesn’t result in a dangerous disaster.
Going beyond a rogue drone causing a few delayed or diverted planes, the relative ease and ability to purchase a drone relatively anonymously online also reveals a dark side of this technology.
In the hands of private operators, a drone able to carry small payloads onboard can be easily weaponised to carry explosives.
That is not to mention the possibility of spying on sensitive, restricted or private places by drones with camera payloads to map out blueprints of key installations and high-value targets. It is not far-fetched to imagine someone with malign intentions could easily strap something much more threatening to life and limb instead of a GoPro camera.
This has already been demonstrated on the battlefields of the Middle East and Ukraine, with the Islamic State successfully carrying out attacks on their enemies on the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields through the nefarious use of commercial drones as far back as 2016 and 2017, based on propaganda videos released at the time by the terror group.
The videos show the notorious organisation, which has since lost almost of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria but still retains pockets of support worldwide, using drones to carry improvised bombs and grenades to attack troops and vehicles of its enemies, successfully wreaking tremendous havoc and disrupting peace.
NEW COUNTER-DRONE SOLUTIONS
In short, the very real danger posed by a drone in the hands of a malign actor cannot be understated.
As an aviation hub, an attack on a fully fuelled airliner at Singapore’s Changi airport could conceivably lead to serious damage and casualties.
There have been several ideas that have been floated on how to bring down drones.
London’s Gatwick Airport has acquired counter-drone systems in the wake of the December 2018 disruptions, and it has been widely reported that other airports are keen to do so as well.
Unlike militaries, which have the option of using missiles to shoot down drones, civil law enforcement agencies cannot do so due to the risk of civilian casualties.
Options which range from a drone fired net to a Dutch police trial with training eagles to knock down drones have been mooted. Perhaps predictably, the latter has been abandoned due to a lack of success, impracticality and inability to be scalable.
Instead, the market is increasingly settling on electronic measures to detect and engage errant drones. These work by either jamming the electronic signal between the operator and the drone, causing control of the latter to be lost, or systems that sends signals to seize control of the drone from the operator.
But many rely on the operator visually acquiring the drone and aiming his device at it before activating it, with the key challenge of spotting one with the naked eye when the drone is flying at an altitude of a few hundred feet or in adverse conditions such as harsh sunlight.
More advanced systems have introduced radars dedicated to tracking smaller, slower objects like drones and optical cameras that assist the operator in acquiring and tracking targets, along with an electronic signal jammer to counter the drone.
Such a system was reportedly used by the US Navy to knock down the Iranian drone in July, which the US Navy said had come as close as about 910m to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Strait of Hormuz. Known as the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS), this is a highly mobile anti-drone solution that rides on a pair of all-terrain buggies.
Attaching the systems to vehicles has the added advantage of mobility, which is a crucial requirement for defending large landmasses like airports, airbases and military camps to improve response times given the threat from drones can materialise from any direction at any time.
All being said, there are still questions about the effectiveness of such systems given that the counter-drone technology is still very much in its infancy.
It was also reported that the US Navy had actually engaged a second Iranian drone with the LMADIS during the Strait of Hormuz incident, although it added it could not give a definitive answer about the success of this engagement.
It also must be noted that such counter-drone systems also inflict an asymmetrical cost on the buyer, with government agencies needing to pay millions of dollars to buy such systems to counter drones which cost mere hundreds of dollars.
However, as the recent experiences of Gatwick and Changi Airports have shown, this asymmetrical cost is something Singapore authorities may have to accept, given that the cost of doing nothing is potentially higher.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.