Registration is not the answer to rogue drones

Rogue drones are disrupting everything from commercial flights to firefighting, and it’s happening more often. NZ aviation safety expert Andrew Shelley argues we need non-tamperable remote identification, legislation changes to allow law enforcement to destroy drones, and more resources to prosecute offenders.

Over three days just before Christmas, one or more drones are believed to have flown over Gatwick Airport, resulting in the cancellation of around 800 flights and disrupting travel for approximately 120,000 people.

In New Zealand, there were at least ten incidents in 2018 where drones have either closed airports or required manned aircraft to adopt precautionary procedures. In the first hour of 2019 a drone came within 10 metres of the Police Eagle helicopter at just under 1400 feet over central Auckland.

The pilot took evasive action and Eagle operations were suspended for the rest of the night.

Another helicopter pilot reported encountering three drones over central Auckland while filming the New Year's fireworks display.

Following these incidents came renewed calls from airlines, air traffic controllers and pilots for drones to be registered. Graeme Sumner, CEO of air traffic service provider Airways New Zealand called for the “mandatory registration of all drones” and “the ability to track drones either through software or hardware on the drone itself".

We should first be clear that New Zealand’s existing drone regulations are fit-for-purpose. Drone pilots must obtain the agreement of any aerodromes within 4km of their operation, which includes the central Auckland helipads.

They must also obtain consent from any person they fly over and the occupier of any property they fly over. Operation at night is prohibited unless shielded, indoors, or flying under a privilege issued to certified operators.

They can’t fly higher than 400 feet above ground level unless certain conditions are complied with. And as the ultimate “catch all” provision, a drone pilot must take “all practicable steps to minimise hazards to people, property, and other aircraft”.

There are also offences specified in the Civil Aviation Act 1990 for operating an aircraft in a careless manner and for operating an aircraft in a manner that causes unnecessary danger.

The problem is that drone pilots break these rules, and it’s very difficult to stop, catch or prosecute them.

Three years after the US’ drone registration scheme came into force, it’s clear registration isn’t a panacea for drone problems.

For a start it is difficult to identify who a drone pilot is. Proponents of drone registration argue that it will significantly aid the identification of drone operators involved in unsafe activities, such as flying a drone in close proximity to airliners.

The problems with registration 

But three years after the US’ drone registration scheme came into force, it’s clear registration isn’t a panacea for drone problems.

In the United States every drone weighing more than 250g must be registered. A registration number is issued to the operator, who has to display that registration number on all drones he or she operates. Commercial operators have a unique registration number for each drone.   

The trouble is that the US system of registration has not prevented drones flying in restricted airspace or around airports.

- On 16 November last year a man crashed his drone into Barclay's Bank in Midtown New York, near the middle of restricted airspace around Trump Tower. The fact the pilot was arrested and charged was not because of registration information on the drone but because he tried to claim the damaged drone.

- Between October 6-14 2018, a total of 40 drones were detected violating the restricted airspace declared for the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.

- There have been many incidents of drones flying at large fires, causing fire-fighting aircraft to be grounded, even though airspace restrictions were in place.

- Similarly, there continues to be many instances of near misses with drones flying in airspace near airports. (Research conducted at four international airports in the UK detected 285 drones over a period of 148 days.)

There is no indication that registration has aided with pilot identification in any of the US incidents.

One incident that illustrates the limitations of a registration number displayed physically on a drone happened on 21 September 2017 in New York, when a DJI Phantom drone collided with a Black Hawk helicopter.

This time the drone flight occurred in airspace which was closed because of the United Nations General Assembly. The drone was destroyed, but one motor and a portion of an arm was recovered and manufacturing serial number information on the motor helped authorities identify the pilot.

This incident highlights that while physical identifier numbers or serial numbers can be used to identify an errant drone, this method of identification is only useful in a situation where:

(a) the drone actually crashes;

(b) components with the registration or serial numbers are recovered; and

(c) the number can be traced to an individual.

In situations where a drone disrupts air traffic but does not crash, physical identification is not possible. Similarly, if the motor had not been recovered in this incident, or if the drone operator had purchased from a third-party retailer rather than directly from the manufacturer, then it would not have been possible to trace the serial number back to the owner.

Finally, as only one arm of the drone was recovered, the likelihood that a physical registration label or data plate on the exterior of the drone could have been recovered is very low.

Remote monitoring

One problem with existing US registration rules is that drones don’t have to carry any identifier that can be read remotely, although the technology is available from Chinese drone manufacturer DJI.

DJI’s AeroScope drone detection software can broadcast the drone's location, altitude, speed, direction, takeoff location, operator location, and an identifier. The AeroScope system claims to detect the “vast majority of popular drones on the market today” within a few kilometres.

Registration will only be successful if it incorporates an effective means of remote identification. It also needs to be non-bypassable; security researchers have also demonstrated it is possible to alter the information transmitted by the DJI system.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that although the AeroScope system was deployed at Gatwick, is believed to have been unable to detect the intruding drone(s).

DJI suggests that their drone ID system could be adopted by other manufacturers. However, even if it was mandated by regulatory authorities, it’s not failsafe. One researcher has shown that operators can block sending the home location, hide the drone ID, or broadcast a fake serial number.

Another researcher found it’s easy to spoof the AeroScope, and information broadcast by the drone.

I would argue that a registration scheme would not have prevented the incident at Gatwick, nor the incidents with the police Eagle helicopter over Auckland at New Year. It is also highly unlikely that a registration scheme would provide information that would enable the drone pilot to be identified.

All a registration scheme would do is provide more constraints on those who already comply with the rules. New Zealand does not need an ineffective bureaucratic solution to the drone problem.

Registration would probably also provide a revenue stream for whoever administers the scheme. It is no secret Airways NZ would like to provide a mandatory drone flight authorisation service - for a fee.

So what is to be done?

The solution is two-fold. First, the Civil Aviation Authority must be properly resourced to investigate drone-related incidents. And second, as I argued in October last year, the law must be changed to allow the use of defensive measures against drones by authorised parties. The police in the UK admitted their efforts at Gatwick were hampered by legislative issues. The US, on the other hand, has passed legislation allowing defensive measures against drones, including by the Department of Homeland Security. New Zealand should do the same.

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