Could We Contain Drones?

Updated: Apr 29

Regulatory and Technology Pathways

A drone flying

The disturbing news from Gatwick Airport in the UK shed light on the security and safety risk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - "Drones" as they are popularly called - pose to critical infrastructures, as well as to the privacy and property of the public.

Emerging technologies and threats

As with many emerging technologies, regulation lags behind: It takes time until the usage patterns and associated risks emerge, it takes time until unwitting or malevolent offenders "discover" whatever mishap, dangerous behavior, or intended assaults are possible with such technology.

Consider the auto industry: A combination of public interest, research, and regulation helped develop proactive and passive safety measures, against incidents that were previously considered "bad luck" or "fate". Reinforcements, restraints, energy absorption passive safety measures were introduced along the years, with complementing road technology features - cutting significantly traffic related deaths and injuries.

Active measures, such as Mobileye's technology now help drivers assess their situation early, gaining critical reaction time, and all the rave is about autonomous driving, which poses a new risk paradigm, moral choices, and responsibility.

Laws and regulation have followed technological advance in this sector, too, and no doubt they will play a significant role in its development.

The drone industry - Rapid growth

Drones are being sold in record numbers and taking to the skies. The FAA projects that there will be more than 1.2 million drones by the end of 2018 in the US alone.

The industry has responded to the massive demand, and is growing nicely, with 40% Year on year growth in 2017 on track to reach $82B by 2025.

Annual revenue projections

The civilian drone segment is dominated by Chinese companies. Chinese drone manufacturer DJI alone has 75% of civilian-market share in 2017 with $11 billion forecast global sales in 2020, followed by French company Parrot with $110m and US company 3DRobotics with $21.6m in 2014.

As of March 2018, more than one million UAVs (878,000 hobbyist and 122,000 commercial) were registered with the US FAA. 2018 NPD point to consumers increasingly purchasing drones with more advanced features with 33 percent growth in both the $500+ and $1000+ market segments.

Drones: Inherent Risks

What risks could drones possibly pose? Legally considered "model aircraft", it proved rather difficult to submit them to regulation. Definitions such as weight, flight height ruled classification and licensing requirements.

However, even the restrictions imposed in recent regulation cannot stop drone operators from inadvertently flying them in dangerous zones, such as above airstrips, chemical plants - or even above residential areas.

As in many cases, the human factor is the weakest link, as shows this actual collision, and the latest incident in Gatwick Airport - Shuttering it for days on end, delaying tens of thousands of passengers and diverting incoming flights.

In a side note this latter incident, still without credible suspects arrested, would be consigned to everlasting mystery, if not past week's news, just a few days later, announcing the airport's sale to Vinci group, with impact on ticket price unannounced.

Jokes aside, there is clearly a problem of prevention, control, and risk mitigation of drone flights, that will only aggravate over time, with the expected proliferation of consumer grade and commercial drones.

Lessons learned from other vulnerable industries

Consider banknotes. Made of essentially printed paper, they have long been susceptible to counterfeit.

Money as a target for counterfeit

All the more so with the advent of color laser printers. So, could you just scan and print your preferred denomination?

Well, it appears, for some time now, that you cannot. Not anonymously as you'd wish, anyway.

A blog post emerging in 2008 revealed what some may have suspected: Most commercially available printer makers have agreed to embed secret document tracking technologies into their printers decades ago, enabling those in the know - and in possession of the appropriate equipment - to track down the exact single printer emanating the counterfeit banknotes.

Tracking down the supply chain, authorities can then trace in which production batch, shipment, store, and date the printer was sold, and maybe to whom. Forger found!

Back to the drone industry

Should we follow this method, we could make manufacturers embed identifications, restrictions, and reporting procedure into their equipment, and prevent adversity at its source.

As the industry grows, we can observe a consolidation trend:

DJI - the most dominant drone manufacturer
Largest drone vendors in 2014
Identification and Tracking
drone control unit
  • Implement UUID to each flight controller board

  • Embed UUIDs in radio communication protocols between drones and operators' consoles.

  • Enforce recording within the control console, or over the cloud, of mobile communications used.

  • Require UUID records in import and manufacturing documentation.

Control and Risk mitigation
  • Enforce automated flight plans (through mobile communication to national centers)

  • Enforce geo-fencing into flight plan approvals

DroneMon - Regulatory measures proposed

  • Implement UUID to each flight controller board

  • Embed UUIDs in radio communication protocols between drones and operators' consoles

  • Enforce recording within the control console, or over the cloud, of mobile communications used

  • Require UUID records in import and manufacturing documentation

  • Enforce automated flight plans (through mobile communication to national centers)

  • Enforce geo-fencing into flight plan approvals

UAV Flight Path Permissions and Restrictions

Two civilian categories are in force at the US: Recreational (under 55pounds) and commercial - with distinction only in the pilot license required to operate the heavier commercial drones.

However, Flight path permissions are similar, and require:

  1. Visual Line Of Sight

  2. 400 feet flight path ceiling

Additional restrictions include no-flight zones and times.

UAV flight monitoring - Proposed System Entities

UAV flight control scheme
Each UAV includes a Flight Controller Board (FCB), which will be required under the new regulations to include a unique identifier.
The same applies to operator consoles (OC).
UAV Flight Control - Communication Protocols
Messages carried between the FCB and OC will include the FCB unique data, and these will be further transmitted and logged in the regional and national flight control servers.
FCB to OC Functionality and 2way communications
  • Embed UUID in communication protocol

  • Report GPS location data (Lat. Long. Alt.)

  • Interpret restrictions received from operator console

OC Functionality and communications
  • Embed UUID (and appended units’) in on-line report to NUFCC

  • Automatically receive restricted zone / time data from NUFCC

  • Send restriction data to Flight Controller board

UFCC Functionality
  • Monitor any number of reporting airborne UAVs

  • Broadcast / send restriction data to any number of operator consoles

  • Alert FAA systems in case of intrusions

  • Record and search log

Scenarios
  • Passive UAV location and intrusion tracking (matches the recreational under 55lbs category)

  • Flight controller Board sends location data and UUID to operator console

  • Operator console sends data to NUFCC

  • NUFCC logs flight path

  • NUFCC alerts FAA, Police if necessary

  • Active UAV location and intrusion tracking

  • Flight controller Board sends location data and UUID to operator console

  • Operator console sends data to NUFCC

  • Operator console receives authorization and restrictions from NUFCC

  • Operator console relays restrictions to the Flight Controller Board

  • NUFCC logs flight path

  • NUFCC alerts FAA, Police if necessary

Conclusion

This broad stroke proposal offers easy to implement measures that could control flight patterns of the vast amount of UAVs that are about to pepper our skies in the next few years.

In case of adverse event, they could ease tracking unwitting offenders.

Are you interested in further discussing this strategic topic? Let's schedule a call


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