After a plane approaching London’s Heathrow Airport appeared to be hit by what many experts and the pilot believe to be a drone, air traffic and security officials are looking at high-powered ‘death ray’ drone killing equipment to prevent such incidents in the future. What are these ‘death rays’ and can you get one for the quadcopter your neighbor’s kid keeps flying outside your bedroom window?
The incident on April 17th – involving a British Airways Airbus A320 with 132 passengers a 5 crew members - was the first alleged (there is still some doubt by the government) drone collision in England, although there have been many near misses at Heathrow and other airports. The death ray is being considered because the encounter was at 1,700 feet – well above the mandated 400-foot maximum legal height for drones in the UK (the FAA-mandated limit in the US is 500 feet).
To show it’s serious about combating drone accidents with airplanes, the British government is joining with three military contractors to develop an Anti-UAV Defence System that is already being tested. It consists of a thermal sensor to automatically detect heat from the drone’s battery pack, a camera to record the drone and a ‘death ray’ used by the military in Afghanistan to bring down enemy UAVs.
Once the Anti-UAV Defence System finds a drone, Mark Radford, CEO of Blighter Surveillance Systems, describes what happens next:
It allows us effectively to take control of that drone to control whether we force a crash landing or return it home to the take off site so the police or security forces can intercept the operator.
A drone death ray seems drastic but it beats the alternative and no other anti-drone devices are as effective. Designing plane engines and outer skins to deal with drones the way they deal with bird strikes has been considering, but the wide variety of drones makes it impractical. Some drone makers are voluntarily adding software called ‘geo-fencing’ into their GPS systems that will prevent them from flying near airports, prisons, military installations and other sensitive or restricted areas, but only a few have volunteered and these systems can be hacked.
Would the Anti-UAV Defence System have prevented the recent Heathrow collision? Most likely. Will civilians be able to get a home version? Unlikely. Will it inspire drone-makers to develop anti-death ray software? Definitely. Will it take a tragedy to force governments to take stronger measures against drones and drone makers? Probably.
Is it already too late?