Last Christmas, a few hundred dollars' worth of technology was able to bring a $5 billion airport to a standstill. Thomas Bywater looks at possible solutions to the industry's drone woes.
Over Christmas, some of the busiest airports in Europe were brought to a standstill by rogue drone pilots.
Gatwick, south London, was crippled for 72 hours over the peak Christmas season with knock-on delays that have affected an estimated 140,000 passengers. Just three weeks later, all flights out of London Heathrow were halted by a single drone.
Video emerged of a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) hovering above the runways of the seventh-busiest airport in the world.
Airport security was powerless to stop the unknown pilots making multiple sorties over the busy international runway. Two people arrested in connection with the Gatwick incident were later released, leaving the culprits at large and London's airports a laughing stock.
The incidents showed just how cheap and easy it is to disrupt air traffic, and get away with it.
Scotland Yard said police were determined to catch whoever was behind the flights. "Any deliberate acts to endanger the airfield and aircraft are serious offences that can carry lengthy prison sentences."
A UAV hitting an aircraft would do catastrophic damage to engines or fuselage, with experts saying a large drone could bring down a passenger jet. The fear of a drone deliberately flown into an aircraft has become a genuine risk, paralysing air traffic.
Airports around the world are scrambling to find a defences against pesky remote aircraft. Everything from net-firing bazookas to radio jammers have been considered as a means to knock rogue drones out of the sky.
Though the dangers of radio-controlled anarchists terrorising civil airspace are obvious, unwitting hobbyists are just as disruptive.
Last year, Chilean tourist Jorge Eduardo Riquelme Cruz was convicted for buzzing firefighting operations over Wanaka. Filming the blaze, the feckless drone pilot grounded seven helicopters fighting the fire. The Crown confiscated his $1700 drone.
There were as many as a quarter of a million drones operating in New Zealand skies last year — and not all operators can be counted on to operate responsibly. The Civil Aviation Authority reported 10 "near collisions" in 2017.
Airways air traffic services manager Tim Boyle told the Herald on Sunday of a "worrying number of drones operating illegally in airspace near airports throughout New Zealand". This included a spate of illegal drone incidents over Queenstown Airport last month. On December 11, a UAV was spotted passing in front of a jet above Lake Wakatipu.
However one company's has errant drones and rogue pilots within its sights. Drone Shield is the Australia-based company specialising in "detecting and neutralising" UAVs. So far they have had successful security deployments to events including last year's Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and the Pyongchang Winter Olympics.
The hardware supplied by the company looks as futuristic as the threat it is attempting to combat. The blocks of gunmetal and mysterious transmitters look like props from the set of a sci-fi flick. Yet these devices are supposedly non-lethal, unless of course you are a radio-controlled aircraft.
Behind Drone Shield is CEO Oleg Vornik.
Phoning from the leafy surrounds of his company's US office on the outskirts of Washington DC, he described the company's beginnings over five years ago, when drone technology was in its infancy.
Today it is an area that clients including the Department of Homeland Security are suddenly taking very seriously.
"Prior to the incidents over Christmas we were not aware of any airport globally which had invested seriously in drone defence"
Though he's not able to comment on current sales, it's something that has suddenly come up on the radar of airports around the world, an important new market for anti-drone defences.
Vornik, who joined the company as chief financial officer quickly became an evangelical champion of the technology. He is a mercurial character whose achievements include representing New Zealand in the 1998 International Mathematics Olympiad.
"Being part of the NZ team for the IMO was a very special experience — I would not say I had much ability, but worked my butt off for number of years to get to the required level," he said. "It's certainly an amazing feeling to represent your country."
An alumnus of Canterbury University, he grew up in New Zealand, spending a couple of years working in Auckland before leaving Aotearoa for Sydney.
"These are tiny aircraft," he explains. "If you see one it's likely to only be a small fraction of the aircraft in the air."
Although these observations were made while tracking drone incursions over prisons, after a recent visit back to Christchurch he admitted the same could be said for New Zealand's scenic bush and beaches. "It's consumer-level technology. There's no point in airlines or border clearance checking for people travelling with drones when you can buy them on the high street."
The radio-operated genie is out of the bottle with regards to public done use, and Vornik feels it's up to technologies such as Drone Shield to ensure airfields have some defence against a technology fast outpacing regulations.
But just as buzzing toys are on track to overtake sandflies as the most annoying thing in the skies above New Zealand, sales of such devices are beginning to plateau. We may have already reached peak drone.
"The technology's become so readily available that anyone who wants a drone can get one, which is great," says Jonathan Kubiak, a senior sales consultant for DJI Ferntech and all-round drone enthusiast.
The company, whose products make up a 75 per cent market share, is responsible for some 190,000 devices over New Zealand. Proportionally the record of close calls recorded by CAA involving drones is pretty clean compared to other aircraft, though he admits any near-miss is one too many.
The company has gone as far as to map out New Zealand airspace in their software, making it possible to warn drone pilots — or even force them to land — when they approach restricted airspace. "Yes, it's possible to get around these things. But doing so shows intent by the pilot."
Most devices are so sophisticated they create and share flight logs of the routes taken, so it is a simple process of determining whether a drone has — or hasn't — infringed on restricted airspace.
Things are more complicated for New Zealand airports looking to contain the threat. These logs are the private property of the pilots and drone-tracking technologies such as Drone Shield are still prohibitively expensive for small airfields.
But in the social-media age there are many chances to rumble disruptive amateur pilots. Sooner or later the incriminating images appear online.
In Scotland, in 2018, Lothian police arrested a 30-year-old man courtesy of video posted online of his drone buzzing popular tourist landmarks such as Edinburgh Castle and the Princes St Gardens.
It seems that this newest development in aviation can be grounded by one of the oldest human foibles — vanity.