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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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17 April 2019

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and a copyright-breaching upload to YouTube, last night I watched the BBC Panorama documentary on the drone scare at Gatwick airport which took place last Christmas.

I don't think I've ever seen so much conflicting information and such a patchwork quilt of fact, fiction and hyperbole in one media piece before.

The impression I was left with after watching this doco was "that's half an hour of my life I'll never get back".

However, I figured it would be worth some comment in today's technology column, if only to show how easily people (including airport managers with budgets measured in hundreds of millions of dollars) can be duped.

Firstly, and most annoyingly, the documentary showed the oft-cited Dayton University "crash test" where a drone was fired into the wing of a light aircraft.

In this test, a Mooney M20 wing was used and a drone was catapulted into it at around 200mph.

The result was entirely predictable.

The drone was smashed to pieces and a large hole was created in the leading edge of the wing.

Now the drone being used was a DJI Phantom, a typical recreational or pro-sumer drone, in fact it's at the upper end of the mass scale for recreational use, weighing in at about 1.2Kg.

The Dayton University representative interviewed in the doco stated that the damage caused would likely not have resulted in the aircraft crashing (remember this was a small, single-engined light aircraft like a Cessna). Then however, the hype started. The same guy felt he had to point out that if the drone had weighed 55lbs then the impact would have had 25 times as much energy and could well have caused a crash.

Excuse me? There are no recreational drones on the market that come anywhere near 55lbs in weight and, as I said, even the drone used represents the upper-limit of mass for recreational use. So why even mention something which is totally unlikely -- if not to simply scare and sensationalise?

Then there was the "anti-drone" technology that a huge number of companies are currently developing and flogging to airports and other "potential targets".

The Panorama doco showcased one such enterprise and its products. It all looked very impressive, with a radar and camera-guided antenna assembly that could not only detect errant drones but also disable them with the press of a button.

Except that they can't.

When demonstrating the disable function, the scene switched to the inside of a building with Faraday cage and RF anechoic chamber.

About 15m away, on the other side of the room, a tiny drone was hovering -- whilst attached to a safety net.

Closer to the camera was the "pilot" of that drone, holding a radio control transmitter.

When the hi-tech anti-drone system was activated it was shown that when the pilot moved the control sticks of the RC transmitter, the drone no longer responded.

Sigh!

Why wasn't this demonstrated in a "real world" environment?

Simple... you can't use an RF jamming device in the UK because it is illegal to broadcast any transmission with the intention of jamming another -- it's the law!

Secondly, and this is something Joe-Average public wouldn't realise, the radio control system being used in the demo is one of the crudest, simplest on the market. Although it operates in the 2.4GHz band, it is not "frequency agile" and simply uses a small, rather narrow (just a couple of MHz wide ) part of that band to carry its signal. Blocking such a narrow, non-agile signal is child's play and I have regularly done this as part of my testing of RC systems in the past. The total cost of the equipment needed is around $150 -- not the *millions* being asked by these purveyors of anti-drone systems.

By comparison, the type of RC system I use for my drones and flying models is highly agile and uses the entire 80MHz of the 2.4GHz band via a frequency-hopping algorithm that means it can maintain control even if more than 90% of the band is jammed.

From a technical perspective, blocking a few MHz of the band is much, much easier than blocking the entire 80MHz. I can see why their demo used a ultra-simple RC system :-)

The real question I have to ask is "why are these anti-drone tech companies getting so much startup funding to create products that can not legally be used in most countries and which are also likely to be completely ineffective against any determined bad actors anyway?"

I guess it's just human nature to throw money at something that "sounds great" and which is being hyped by polished spin-meisters and the media.

However, if all this money can reduce the death toll associated with recreational drone use by even one then it's all worthwhile... right?

What do you mean nobody's ever been killed as a result of the recreational use of multirotor drones? How dare you inject facts and reality into this hysteria? There is no room for such fact-mongering in the anti-drone tech market!

Devil be gone!

And for the benefit of anyone who may have missed my video on one particular piece of anti-drone technology and the hype being used to market it... watch on:

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