Dangerous drones

29 January 2019

Interview with 

Peter Cowley, angel investor

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Holiday makers at Gatwick Airport in the UK won’t be forgetting the hundreds of flights cancelled around Christmas 2018 as a result of drones flying in the area. 140,000 passengers were affected, and the airline EasyJet said last week that it cost just them £10 million. So why are drones such a headache for air travel and what can we do to prevent a repeat? Katie Haylor spoke with tech expert and angel investor Peter Cowley...

Peter - A drone, as we've seen many times on television, is basically a flying robot. It can weigh just a few grams or it can weigh several times that depending on its use. It's used for things like aerial photography, surveillance, but it flies in the same way as a helicopter. It is usually almost always battery powered, it's got multiple rotors both for directions stability and redundancy, then it's connected via radio link to the ground and it's almost always controlled by a human being.

Katie - OK. So why are they a problem for airports?

Peter - I think the main reason is danger of a collision. Now that could be something really important like the airspeed indicator but I think the main problem seems to be the engines.

You might remember, 10 years ago, there was an aircraft that crashed on the Hudson River in New York - which was made into a movie - and that was because it hit a flock of Canada geese. But you've got to bear in mind this isn't that often. I mean, obviously, the drones around the airports are causing a problem but there are 10 billion birds flying around most the time in the US but they're only a few hundred bird strikes per year.

Katie - Actually, why do people have drones in the first place? What are they used for?

Peter - These are fun! I actually flew one on this program and I uttered a word I shouldn't have done and it had to be deleted!

Chris - The fact is, Peter, you compounded your naughtiness by then swearing because you said “I [pause] swore”...

Katie - Uh oh! But let’s get back. People have them for a variety of surveillance…

Peter - Spotting poachers, for instance, cargo...

Katie - They can actually present a real danger in this context?

Peter - Yes. They are heavy. The CAA in the states said 250 grams is okay to be dropped on from the air. There are other studies which says it's actually a bit more than that but can you imagine a drone dropping onto one's head? What effect that could have? And the issue of course is you get ingested into an engine. What could happen to that engine?

Katie - Are there restrictions then on why you can fly these things?

Peter - There are. It’s a certain distance away from an airport. The people were clearly breaking the rules. The issue is trying to catch them; catch the people and catch the drone.

Katie -  And that seems like quite a difficult thing to do...

Peter - Yes. And, first of all, you’ve got to detect them and there are a couple of detection methods… There’s a very cheap one that costs 5000 dollars. It detects it, tells you where it's from, where it is. But more importantly there's a way of actually modifying the radio frequency so you can get the drone to land or lose connection with the pilot. There are various ways of doing it.

Eagles have been trained to catch them! Can you imagine that, an eagle coming in and doing that? There are other drones that drop nets onto them which, of course, then stops and drops to the ground. People are talking about shooting them but apparently that's similar to shooting down an aircraft which is totally illegal in the States. And, of course, if you shot at something and the bullet went through the air and it misses, it's going to make it to somebody else. There are jamming machines as well. So there are a number of ways of catching them, destroying them and causing them to crash. None of which really work well enough yet.

Katie - Okay. So what needs to happen then? Refined technological solutions?

Peter - Exactly. Yeah well obviously some cases where people were caught and prosecuted, some technology that's better, probably jamming but that could cause jamming to other things as well in the area which might affect the aircraft... There was a big disruption before Christmas so society is very much on the side of things changing and improving and it will happen but it will take time.

Chris - I feel this is a bit of a shame though because in the same way as the Internet was born out of high ideals and has delivered enormous benefit to people. So have drones. But at the same time the Internet is being abused and now people are bearing down on it saying we need regulation. They're saying the same thing about drones now and they say in the same way that the people who liked shooting, for example, have now faced enormous amounts of legislation to pursue a hobby that was safe for them but others have abused. We may see a loss of freedom to fly your drones.

Peter - We will. This is societal change isn't it? We talk about the big tech giants Facebook and fake news, et cetera. There's a lot happening where society has to learn to control in the way that doesn't remove the flexibility but at the same time makes it safe for all of us.

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