Methods to bring down drones needed until full regulations in place, expert says

Factory-installed limits on access to protected zones, custodial sentences and legal changes to permit hijacking of drones among vital measures called for to curb aerial threat to safety, privacy and flights

A regulatory regime to deal with illegal drone activity in the European Union is at an advanced stage but other measures, such as bringing down drones that fly into restricted areas, will still be needed for “the next couple of years”, according to an expert in the area.

The eventual goal is that all drones sold in the European Union will have to be manufactured so that, unless authorised to do so, they cannot be flown inside “electronic fences” or “bubbles” that will be established around certain critical infrastructures.

It is against the law to fly a drone with 5km of Dublin Airport but, on Thursday, the airport had to again shut down because of illegal drone activity.

In this jurisdiction the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) will have responsibility for what infrastructures can be inside such electric fences. Public and private airports, prisons, security installations and Government buildings are likely to be protected from unwanted drone traffic in their vicinity by the regulatory regime.


The next step required in this process, the publication by the European Union Authority for Air Safety of certain technical requirements, so that manufacturers can set about complying with them, is expected to take place by the end of this year, according to Julie Garland, founder and chief executive of Avtrain, a drone training business.

But even after the situation is arrived at where all new drones being sold in the EU are compatible with the European regulation system, there will still be “legacy” drones that it will be legal to fly.

“We are still a couple of years away from technology stopping idiots from flying drones where it is illegal,” says Garland, who is also a barrister, pilot, aircraft maintenance engineer and chair of the Unmanned Aircraft Association of Ireland. “In the meantime we can take more immediate action.”

High on her list of things that can be done domestically is ensuring that those who are found guilty by the courts of flying drones close to an airport receive custodial sentences that reflect the gravity of what they have done – “jeopardising the safety of people on an airplane”.

A few weeks ago, as part of the effort to deter people from misusing drones, a statutory instrument gave An Garda Síochána the power to prosecute offenders, including collecting evidence and sending files to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Previously, enforcement of the law was the preserve of the IAA.

Among the changes in the law that may be required, according to Garland, is an amendment that will allow for the “hijacking” of drones by the authorities when they are flown close to infrastructures from which they are banned.

“The short-term solution is what we have at the moment,” said a spokesman for the Dublin Airport Authority. “We spot the drone and stop the airport when we do.”

What the authority wants is the ability to “effectively seize drones and bring them down, or that someone can. It does not necessarily have to be us. In London they have the capability to bring a drone down. So something like that would be the next step.”

Airports around Europe and in the UK are using such solutions, without the technology itself interfering with flight operations, he said. “We just need to have the same here in Dublin, but that will require intervention by the State to give us the legal structure that would allow drones to be taken out of the sky… We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan, said on Friday that technology with the capability of bringing down drones would be introduced as quickly as could be done safely. He would bring a memo to Cabinet on Tuesday, he said, but it would take a number of weeks to acquire the necessary equipment.

John Kettles, a UK director of drone technology business Department 13, says the problem with technology that causes drones to plummet from the air is not just that “they can fall on a car, or a house, or someone’s head”, but that the process usually destroys information in the drone that could assist in the prosecution of its operator.

His company has a product that can identify authorised drones within a radius of 5km and, if authorised to do so, “passively” take control of them and automatically cause them to travel safely to a designated landing zone. This means that GPS information that would help identify its operator does not get damaged.

As matters stand, such hijacking is illegal both here and in the UK. In the UK, the police can work with his company and give real-time authorisations for seizing control of drones at events such as gatherings of political leaders where serious security operations are in place. His company, he said, has been in communication with the MI5 and MI6 intelligence services in the UK to discuss changing the law to facilitate the use of the technology.

“In southern Ireland you have the Department of Justice and the Department of Transport and the Garda and the airport security, so when this came up a few weeks ago I was in touch with some of these bodies and they weren’t quite sure who was going to be responsible, which is a problem.”

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent