London Gatwick’s drone disruption highlighted how much damage can be done by a single rogue drone. An improved decision-making process, better enforcement, and stiffer penalties are needed to stop rogue operators

In late December 2018, operations at London’s Gatwick Airport were badly disrupted by rogue drone sightings. Over a couple of days, some 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights were affected, the biggest interruption in services since the Icelandic volcano incident in 2010.

The military were called in and Gatwick quickly invested several million pounds on military-grade counter-UAS (unmanned aircraft system) capability. The United Kingdom was also quick to improve its drone regulations.

Early movers

The question of how aviation should deal with drones in the long term remains, however. The number of drones taking to the skies is predicted to grow exponentially as the technology improves and they become commercially viable for all manner of uses from deliveries to security to humanitarian aid. One estimate suggests 45 million drones will be taking to the skies by 2020.

And, of course, there is the added complication of rogue drones. Any control system has to account for good and bad actors.

A UAS Traffic Management (UTM) framework is a suite of services that provides a framework for the good actors to be integrated into civil airspace. Registration, geofencing and authorization are all vital though each facet has its challenges.

Registration is a means of electronic ID so there must be a common database or a way of effortlessly sharing information. Nationally that is far easier to achieve than internationally, especially as Europe’s stringent data protection rules come to the fore.

Geofencing—preventing a drone from flying in certain locations—is done by manufacturers but there is no central repository of information for them to consult. Prison locations are not usually included in aviation-related documents, for example. Moreover, geofencing ignores context. A drone might be allowed in a particular airspace during daylight hours but not be allowed there at night or there may be a one-off event to avoid.

This means authorization—express permission to fly in a specific location—needs to be given in real time so there must be excellent communications with the drone as it may be allowed to supersede geofencing restrictions.

“Protection efforts should focus on ‘crown jewel’ infrastructure and not the unattainable goal of we must protect everything”

Drawing lines

But not everybody is convinced the industry is getting it 100% right. UTM is currently a nebulous concept and the plethora of national frameworks illustrates the potential confusion this could cause the industry. In short, there is no agreement on what UTM means never mind what it should comprise and the standards it should follow.

“There are many discussions about UTM technology and systems,” agrees Ruby Sayyed, IATA’s Head of ATM Advocacy. “Our main concern is to have a harmonized approach for UTM—which is IATA’s key focus for 2019—and for the various initiatives we are driving, including our Think Tank Meeting. We are also working with ICAO.”

Ken Dunlap, Managing Partner at Catalyst-Go—which studies issues surrounding autonomous vehicles—agrees that the airline industry would be better served by laying down principles on which the UTM proposals can build.

“The industry must draw distinct lines as to what it is willing to accept and not accept in UTM schemes that seek reserving airspace for drone-only operations, placing drones in the same the airspace as aircraft, and requiring resources from traditional air traffic control (ATC),” he suggests. “The industry also has unique expertise in defining standards for equipage for communicating with ATC, redundancy in flight control systems, and pilot qualifications that need to be embedded in any UTM discussions. So far, we haven’t seen these lines drawn and that’s worrying.”

Discussion on… The UTM race

The race is on to establish a UTM in many countries. Swiss air navigation service provider, skyguide, is one of the early movers in establishing a UTM framework. Together with AirMap, it has successfully demonstrated what Europe terms U-Space. The demonstration saw dozens of drones performing a wide variety of commercial tasks across the entire country.

Tests have shown that Switzerland’s existing mobile phone infrastructure is suitable for the safe performance of drone flights. In essence, the exchange of data between drones and U-Space providers is sufficiently stable using the existing infrastructure meaning nothing new or costly is required.

Demonstrations in Germany have concluded much the same thing. German ANSP, DFS, and Deutsche Telekom conducted various tests including a search mission for a missing person and an aerial patrol of a pipeline.

Many other countries are developing their own versions of UTM. Japan, for example, is building a system through the Japan UTM Consortium. A flight information management system (FIMS) provides overall control while service providers sit between the FIMS and the operators. Implementation is slated for the 2020s. China, meanwhile, has specified the use of civil UAS Operation Management System with several unmanned aircraft cloud system (UACS) providers providing the link to the operators.

Dunlap believes ensuring UTM is future-proof is critical. A new generation of drones relying on full autonomy is taking to the skies. These vehicles use machine perception systems and machine learning to sense their environment and guide themselves.

“In this regard, the industry will need to place even greater emphasis on avionics redundancy requirements, and an entirely new area, standards for machine learning,” he says. “This discussion must include insisting on standards for the datasets drone manufacturers use to train vehicle systems to conduct sense and avoid operations and even recover in the event of malfunction. The industry must also insist on transparency into the functioning of these systems so that other airspace users have a degree of comfort in these technologies. These are new areas that the industry traditionally hasn’t faced, but they are critically important for the next generation of air vehicles to coexist with commercial operations.”

140,000 - Rogue drone sightings at London’s Gatwick Airport caused disruptions affecting 140,000 passengers in December 2018


Whether UTM should integrate a specific counter-UAS capability to deal with rogue drones, intentional or otherwise, is also being debated.

German air navigation service provider (ANSP), DFS, has developed an interface between its UTM and drone detection systems to prevent disruptions caused by rogue drones. A catch-and-carry drone threw a net over the disruptive drone in a demonstration and took it to the ground.

But Dunlap says that tying counter-UAS to a UTM framework “might well be a mistake.” By definition, intentional rogue drones are not part of safe and responsible operations. Counter-UAS, therefore, must find these machines at very low altitudes amid much background clutter. “Equally unappealing are transponders vulnerable to rogue operators deactivating or circumventing them,” says Dunlap. “These significant deficiencies combined with the expense of integrating two systems argue against a combined counter-UAS/UTM model.”

Discussion on… Guiding the ATM future

Even though there are many hurdles to overcome, UTM could prove a game-changer for air traffic management (ATM) beyond its ability to integrate drone flights into civil airspace. It could be the catalyst for change in the ATM mindset.

“We do see a convergence between UTM and ATM, and we see transferable technologies and concepts that could be used to manage traffic, manned and unmanned,” says IATA’s Ruby Sayyed. “We anticipate a transformation in ATM motivated not only by UAS but also by higher altitude and commercial space operations.”

And while UTM starts with drones, it won’t stop there. It is an iterative process that will introduce new capabilities, such as urban air mobility (UAM). Boeing estimates the UAM market to be worth $500 billion by 2040 and notes there are over 100 types of vehicle in development today.

Ben Marcus, Co-Founder and Chairman of AirMap, says UTM is a key component of urban air mobility. “UAM involves high-density, high-tempo, and low-altitude eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) flights that rely on automated and digital airspace management services to support hundreds of thousands of flights per day,” he says. “Critical capabilities that UTM can provide for UAM include strategic and tactical automated separation; 4D trajectory planning; demand-capacity balancing; scheduling, and spacing during take-off and landing. To achieve the anticipated scale of UAM and manage the associated complexity of flying at low-altitude, densely populated areas such as cities, UTM services are essential.”

Layered counter-UAS measures may be a preferred option. These leverage education, stricter law enforcement, available detection technologies, and assessment of aviation’s unique vulnerabilities. In such a system, the public understands the dangers drones present to commercial aviation through community engagement. Legal authorities apply penalties against all rogue drone operators and not just the most egregious violators.

$500 billion - Boeing estimates the UAM market to be worth $500 billion by 2040.

Counter-UAS should embrace “crowd sourcing tech and reward members of the public who report on rogue operators,” says Dunlap. “Protection efforts should focus on ‘crown jewel’ infrastructure and not the unattainable goal of “we must protect everything.” These layers are implementable today and robust enough for tomorrow’s threat which will look nothing like what we see in the sky today.”

Ben Marcus, Co-Founder and Chairman of AirMap, agrees that counter-UAS capability is merely a last resort against criminals. But a comprehensive UTM framework that includes registration and proper regulation should minimize the risk, especially against careless operators.  Most drones come complete with geofencing with updates available to ensure up-to-the-minute compliance with national regulations, for example.

Of course, intentionally bad actors will unlock geofencing measures and spoof their location. But counter-UAS combined with UTM that has access to registration means drones can be remotely identified If they are not registered. Or they can be Identified as unofficially operating beyond their geofencing limits.

Counter-UAS technology identifies all manned and unmanned aircraft operations within controlled airspace,” Marcus concludes. “Integration with UTM intelligence is necessary in order to differentiate between lawful and unlawful drone operations and take appropriate intervention steps.”

Protecting manned aviation

For its part, IATA has released guidelines for the protection of manned aviation from drones.

45m - One estimate suggests 45 million drones will be taking to the skies by 2020

A radio-frequency (RF) signal analyzer, for example, can detect, monitor, and analyze all relevant radio frequencies being used to operate the UAS. Combined with a direction finder it can be used to locate the UAS operator. Optical tracking, such as thermal tracking cameras, or acoustic technologies can also be employed to find rogue drones.

Signals can then be selectively jammed or UAS interceptors sent. GPS/GNSS jammers and spoofing should not be used as anti-UAS measures, however, as they can interfere with the operations of an aircraft. And it should be noted that loss or disrupted signals can result in the UAS maneuvering unpredictably.

Airbus estimates that every hour, in 2035 the skies above Paris will consist of:

156 aircraft (up from 80 in 2018)

2,500 urban air mobility vehicles (up from 0 in 2018)

16,667 delivery drones (up from 0 in 2018)

58 inspection drones (up from 1 in 2018)

44 hobby drones (up from 12 in 2018)

IATA notes that “it is very important to note that in general, any UAS countermeasures which infringe on local laws and regulations or create higher risks and may cause danger to other aviation stakeholders, should be avoided.”

States should consider anti-UAS measures that can: support continuous monitoring of UAS activities; detect and record UAS activities in a timely manner and, where capable, geo-locate the operator; and perform effective actions that can be safely, swiftly and legally activated in time to prevent a UAS from entering an area of interest.

Ruby Sayyed,

IATA’s Head of ATM Advocacy 

“Our main concern is to have a harmonized approach for UTM—which is IATA’s key focus for 2019”

Ken Dunlap,

Managing Partner at Catalyst-Go

“The industry must draw distinct lines as to what it will or will not accept in UTM schemes that seek reserving airspace for drone-only operations”

Ben Marcus,

Co-Founder and Chairman of AirMap

“Integration with UTM intelligence is necessary in order to differentiate between lawful and unlawful drone operations”