Questions in the air after drone disruptions

18 Jul 2019

Straits Times, 18 Jul 2019, Questions in the air after drone disruptions
Thousands of travellers were affected when drone sightings at Changi Airport over two nights, on June 18 and 24, led to 55 flight delays and eight diversions.
With more drones getting off the ground in Singapore, and Changi expected to handle a growing number of flights in the coming years, managing an already-tight airspace will not be easy.
Events that have unfolded since last month's incursions reflect urgency in addressing the conundrum.
Just a week after the chairman of a government-appointed panel looking into unmanned aircraft operations told The Straits Times that it was likely to propose mandatory registration for drones above a certain weight, and tougher penalties for those who flout flying rules, the Transport Ministry made a stand.
In Parliament on July 8, Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min said that there will be mandatory registration for all drones, as early as before the year end. There will also be a licensing framework for pilots of large and more capable drones.
Penalties are likely to be raised and there will be stricter enforcement actions against errant drone operators, he said.
Currently, there is a ban in Singapore on flying drones within 5km of airports or military airbases, or at altitudes above 61m, without a permit. Offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and jailed for up to a year.
As with all policies, the devil is in the detail. Whatever new rules and regulations are introduced, execution and strict enforcement will be key. With drones in the spotlight, it is also a good time to review the current flying rules and make any tweaks that are required.
Two major areas must be addressed. First, there is a need to ensure that compliant operators do not stray into sensitive areas by mistake. It is equally crucial that the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) beef up its capabilities to detect and disable malicious drones, so that errant operators are nabbed and severely dealt with.
As the world's seventh busiest airport for international traffic and a major transit hub, Changi, which handled a record 65.6 million passengers last year, cannot afford major operational hiccups.
While the impact of the recent drone intrusions was moderate, what happened at Gatwick last December shows how badly airports can be affected.
Drone sightings paralysed the entire airport near London for three days, affecting about 1,000 flights. Given such incursions, one might be tempted to ask: Why not just ban drones, especially those used for recreation?
It seems the easy way out but what purpose would it serve? Would it stop perpetrators who were likely behind the Changi and Gatwick incursions? Highly unlikely. Enforcing such a ban would be virtually impossible with drones so easily accessible, both online and at stores.
Drones also perform critical safety and other commercial and industrial functions and are used by learning institutes for study purposes. There is nothing to stop those who use the drones from flying them for fun.
The next step, as proposed by the Government, is registration. This is important to help the authorities reach out to the community to provide updates on operating rules, training and other matters.
Mr Mark Tay, a senior lecturer at the School of Engineering, Republic Polytechnic, pointed out that some may stop flying drones altogether, if required to register their gadgets. "This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if operators do not fully appreciate the responsibilities that come with flying the gadgets," he said.
The question, though, is whether there is a need for all drones to be registered, as announced by Dr Lam?
Even as the drone community supports the need for registration to help the authorities keep track of who owns what, the general consensus among them is that this need not apply to all drones.
In the United States and China where such rules already exist, only drones weighing 250g and above need to be registered.
Associate Professor Foong Shaohui at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who deals with unmanned aerial vehicles as part of his engineering focus, said: "There are some really small drones which are designed to be flown indoors only. So maybe such types do not need to be registered. But those that are designed to operate outdoors should be."
It is also important to ensure that the registration process is not cumbersome and fees, if any, be kept minimal. Mr Alvin Yeoh, 39, committee secretary at the Multirotor Association of Singapore, said: "If registration is tedious and difficult, it will just put people off. The best option is for a quick online process."
By and large, the drone community - about 2,000 of them - fly by the rules.
Still, they may unknowingly stray into off-limits airspace, potentially disrupting commercial and other flight operations.
To minimise the risk of this happening, CAAS could delineate spaces where people can fly their drones, instead of stipulating that no flying is allowed within 5km of airports or military airbases.
Not everyone necessarily understands how big an area this is and which parts of the island are out of bounds.
To encourage people to fly their drones at the approved spaces, charging stations could be set up at these areas.
Providing such an environment will also help bring the drone community closer, which will be useful for information sharing and gathering, when needed.
Another idea is to install netting - similar to what is seen at golf driving ranges - near the airport and other sensitive areas.
This will help ensure that drone activities are contained within the perimeters.
Even as details are being worked out for the registration of drones, and stiffer penalties as well as other measures deliberated, these are unlikely to be able to stop those harbouring malicious intentions.
Dr Lam admitted as much when explaining how geofencing technology works. While such solutions can keep drones out of restricted areas, there are limitations.
This is because a drone must first be fitted with the necessary software that uses Global Positioning System and other navigational satellite signals to automatically help prevent it from flying near sensitive locations.
An operator that does not want to be detected can easily achieve this by not fixing or removing the software.
Herein lies a major challenge and apparent gap in tackling such incursions: the lack of good capabilities to detect and deactivate malicious drones.
Following the incidents at Changi Airport, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) deployed its assets to support CAAS-led efforts at Changi Airport.
Revealing this during an annual media interview ahead of SAF Day on July 1, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen also stressed that it was not a long-term solution. He said then: "It's not even the most economical solution because, as you can imagine, our SAF systems are built with specifications to deal with much more."
Ms Zoe Stanley-Lockman, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies agreed that military and civilian requirements differ significantly.
"For example, key requirements for countermeasures in Iraq and Syria included that they be mobile (either mounted on a moving platform like a truck, or handheld) because troops will constantly be on the move," she said.
Such capabilities are not necessary to protect key infrastructure like airports that have defined perimeters.
It is critical for CAAS, which started in 2015 to track the use of unmanned systems with operator and activity permits, to acquire the necessary capabilities and technology to detect and take down errant drones.
Ms Stanley-Lockman stressed, though, that nabbing perpetrators will not be easy. She said: "Investment in counter-drone capabilities is undoubtedly necessary, but these capabilities should not be seen as a silver bullet. They are not perfect and will be more expensive than commercial drone joyrides."
Capabilities aside, it is also worthwhile for CAAS to tap on a growing number of plane watchers here - enthusiasts who spend hours near the airport waiting to take that picture of a rare aircraft livery or a new plane type.
If the authorities can reach out to them and establish communication channels, they can play the critical role of being CAAS' eyes and ears on the ground to report drone and other suspicious activities near the airport. It is only with a multi-pronged approach that Singapore will be able to effectively manage drones in its airspace.