5 ways to try to counter a drone incursion

Drone sightings at London's Gatwick Airport and the subsequent shutdown has raised questions about safety at Canada's airports, how vulnerable they are to drones and whether there's anything that can be done to counter their infiltration.

Disruptions by drones at London's Gatwick Airport raise questions about safety of Canadian airports

Drone users in Canada are legislated by the Canadian Aviation Regulations, which prohibit recreational drone users from flying within 5.6 km of airports and more than 90 metres above ground. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Drone sightings have prompted airport shutdowns, flight cancellations and delays, and raised questions about the vulnerability of Canada's airports, and whether there's anything that can be done to counter such incidents.

In December, drones spotted at London's Gatwick Airport caused it to shut down for three days, affecting 120,000 people. This week, flights were delayed at Heathrow Airport for more than an hour after a drone sighting.

Drone users in Canada are legislated by the Canadian Aviation Regulations. On Wednesday, in wake of these disruptions at airports, the federal government announced tighter restrictions. Some of these new regulations require the drone pilot to:

  • Pass an online exam and get a pilot certificate for basic or advanced operations
  • Be 14 years of age for basic and 16 for advanced operations
  • Stay below an altitude of 122 m above ground level
  • Stay away from air traffic
  • Stay away from security perimeters established in response to an emergency
  • Avoid piloting a drone within 12 hours of drinking alcohol

But those regulations may do little to deter a user who has malicious intent, which appears to be the case at Gatwick. But a number of companies are offering some drone countermeasures that can be used to try to defend against drone attacks or incursions.

1. Detection

Eric Saczuk, an instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, said the first priority is detection. There are hardware and software available that allow an airport to detect drones 15 to 20 km away.

Last year, Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced new safety restrictions on recreational drones. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

It could be a portable system — a laptop with an antenna — that picks up signals from some drones that are nearby. The system scans a certain frequency and looks for a signature that would be indicative of a drone.

"The system that I've seen was specifically designed to detect a particular manufacture of drones," he said. "I'm not sure how ubiquitous the systems are in terms of detecting all types of drones right away."

Meanwhile, as the CBC's David Burke reports, Canada's Department of National Defence is examining using regular television signals to create a radar system that would detect flying intruders the size of an insect.

2. Shooting them down

With an early-warning system in place that can detect drones, the next step would be to take action against them.

While shooting them down is a popular solution, there are always concerns over damage and the risks of stray bullets. 

At Gatwick, Sussex Police had initially ruled out that option. But as more drones were spotted, assistant chief Const. Steve Barry later said that "even shotguns would be available to officers should the opportunity present itself."

3. Jamming them

There are jamming guns that use a high-powered radio frequency that can take control of a drone and make it hover, return home or land, Saczuk said.

Jamming guns, with a high powered radio frequency, can be used to thwart drone incursions.

Some of these devices have been used at the G7 summit — and at least one company in Canada manufactures such devices at about a cost of $70,000, he said.

However, there are heavy restrictions on these guns and they can only be used legally by the RCMP, Saczuk said.

"So this is not something that a company could go buy and start pointing at drones and taking drones out of the sky."

4. Deploying nets

There's also technology that uses drones themselves to go after other drones. Some companies manufacture drones with the ability to deploy nets against other drones. Police in Tokyo, for example, have experimented with these measures.

Other companies, like British-based SkyWall, use air-powered cannons to launch nets at drones and bring them down.

5. Deploying birds

At least one Amsterdam-based company, Guard from Above, says its services are all about "intercepting hostile drones using birds of prey."

On its website, it claims it has been asked to train a number of eagles for the Dutch national police and has provided counter-unmanned aircraft system services at a number of public events in The Netherlands.