Experts at Countering Drones event assess the risks to airports and prisons posed by growth of high-powered, affordable models

 
The growth of consumer drones is ‘a real threat to public safety’, the Prison Officers Association says. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Security officials, police and legal experts from around the world are gathered in London for a global conference on tackling the threats posed to prisons, airports, nuclear facilities and other infrastructure by consumer drones.

The Countering Drones conference, which organisers describe as the first of its kind, reflects concerns that increasingly high-powered and affordable models of drones are posing new and wide-ranging security challenges for police and other protection forces.

Nearly 80% of people surveyed by Defence IQ, the conference organisers, said they believed a major security incident involving drones in civilian airspace was strongly likely or almost certain to happen in the next five years.

In some areas, such as at airports and in prisons, drones are already causing widespread disruption, but the conference also highlights areas such as at sporting events and seaports, where threats posed by unmanned aircraft are still emerging.

The conference is sponsored by defence companies Thales and Rheinmetall with tickets starting at £599 a head. A programme advertises sessions by officials from the US, UK, France, Israel, Switzerland and Germany, among others, and offers intriguing hints as to the solutions being considered – one session by a Canadian researcher is titled “Can we just shoot them down?”

Reports of near-misses between drones and commercial aircraft have risen sharply: four serious incidents were reported in July alone, with unmanned aircraft spotted as close as five metres from passenger jets taking off or landing.

It is often unclear whether close calls are due to naive drone pilots or potentially malicious actors, said Steve Landells, safety officer at the British Airline Pilots Association.

“Whether that person’s deliberately flying a drone around an airport to stop all traffic to disrupt things or because they just want some pretty pictures, the end result from an aviation point of view is roughly the same,” he said, warning that their presence dangerously distracts pilots during takeoff and landing phases.

“As a pilot you’re coming into land, you’ve got 200 tonnes of metal and human beings behind you and you’re trying to put an aircraft down on an area the size of a couple of tennis courts at 150mph. The last thing you really need to be doing is having a sudden shock … that’s the danger the drones pose,” Landells said.

Lawyers at the conference were scheduled to discuss whether airports and civil aviation authorities are at risk of being sued if a drone strike leads to an air accident, while officials from Los Angeles, Berlin and Budapest airports will discuss the potential prevention measures they could take.

There has also been a steep increase in the past three years of reports of small drones being used to smuggle drugs and other contraband equipment into prisons. The commissioner of Canada’s correctional service, Don Head, is in London to discuss the “menace” posed by drones to prisons at the conference.

“This is a problem that’s growing on a daily basis and it’s a problem that needs to be eradicated,” said Glyn Travis, spokesman for the Prison Officers Association, adding that it posed “a real threat to security and public safety”.

Travis said: “We have asked the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service what they are doing to try and combat this, and we are still waiting for a solution that will prevent the use of drones in prison and stop the use of them to smuggle equipment in. It’s a real problem. We haven’t seen anything that’s being done to stop it.”

This week the justice secretary, Liz Truss, was mocked for suggesting that the barking of guard dogs was deterring drones at Pentonville prison.

The conference programme also hints at less frequently reported threats: one session examines how to protect civil nuclear sites against drone attack and surveillance, while a US official is scheduled to deliver a briefing on how drones are being used to spy on seaports, as well as for smuggling.

Another session examines threats to sporting events, including consideration of whether in future stadia will need to be designed with advanced anti-drone “detect and destroy” technologies.

The rapid growth of consumer drones had taken officials by surprise and had left the authorities scrambling to catch up with basic measures such as ensuring drones are registered, said Landells. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the massive growth … that they’d be selling tens of thousands of drones every year,” he said.

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