Just a few weeks after drone sightings brought a major London airport to a standstill at Gatwick, it happened again. Heathrow Airport, the second-busiest transport hub the world, grounded departing flights on Monday following fresh drone sightings.
The threat of commercial drones bringing chaos—or even worse, death and destruction when used in terror attacks — is likely to become a fixed feature in the coming years, according to assessments by defense establishments around the world.
In August 2018, explosive drones were used to try and assassinate the president of Venezuela, injuring several soldiers. The incident joins a growing number of threats to world leaders involving drones. In 2017, Israel’s Ben Gurion-Airport also came to a standstill briefly, after drones approached restricted airspace.
But Israeli defense companies are at the forefront of delivering solutions, as seen by reports saying that the British Army rolled out an anti-drone system, known as Drone Dome, produced by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Systems.
Aryeh Egozi, a veteran aviation expert and security correspondent, and the editor in chief of Israel Homeland Security website (i-HLS), told JNS that Israeli companies are world leaders in solutions to this growing problem.
“The story is that drones are a huge threat and not one that is under control. It is possible to buy commercial drones on eBay for $200, and for $300, you can buy something very sophisticated,” said Egozi.
“These can be attached to half-a-kilogram of explosives and cause mass panic if they detonate. The threat to civilian and military air traffic is big,” he stated. “Everyone is worried about this.”
Israel’s defense companies, which have developed advanced radars and laser systems, are now using these assets to develop counter-drone systems, noted Egozi. In addition to Rafael, Israel Aerospace Industries has placed its own system, Drone Guard, on the market. Smaller companies in Israel, like Skylock, also have anti-drone systems for sale.
“Israeli companies have a lot of knowledge in radars and communications because of Israel’s security needs. Companies here are at the forefront, no question,” said Egozi.
All of the Israeli systems are based on the ability to detect drones and jam their frequencies, disabling communications between the base station and the drone. The jamming systems can also disorient the drone by cutting it off from satellite communications. The drone would then crash land. “Some systems enable defenders to take over the drones and land them where they wish,” said Egozi.
“The more advanced systems, like Drone Dome, have lasers to burn through the drones,” he added.
In its product description, Rafael said that “in recent years, there has been a significant increase in the use of low, small and slow unmanned aerial vehicles.” It described Drone Dome as an effective way to conduct airspace defense “against hostile drones used by terrorists and criminals to perform aerial attacks, collect intelligence and carry out intimidating activities.”
The system scans 360 degrees around it, rapidly detecting, tracking and neutralizing drones that are “classified as threats flying in no-fly zones,” said the company, adding that this defense is achieved with minimum collateral damage.
“There will be no choice but to place systems like this at airports and other sites,” said Egozi. “There are drones that can take on a 20- to 30-kilogram payload. That is a flying bomb that can be guided anywhere. Terrorists can arrive in a car, and before anyone knows it, they can launch an attack,” he warned.
The threat of drones colliding with aircraft also poses a significant challenge, according to Egozi. “In short, this is a very big problem. After Gatwick, there will be a big awakening to it. Israeli defense companies are in contact with many around the world.”
‘An accurate aerial weapon’
In January 2018, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Shachar Shohat, the former commander of the Israeli Air Defense Forces from 2012 to 2015, published an op-ed, in which he warned that non-state hostile actors are going to use drones to help “level the playing field against their enemies.”
Every non-state terrorist group and guerrilla force can arm itself “with an accurate aerial weapon and use it to attack its target of choice. So far, the world has been slow to respond,” wrote Shohat. “This has given the non-state actors their own kind of air force, with the ability to gather intelligence, drop bombs and communicate beyond line of sight—all for a low price.”
At the end of 2017, the Israeli cabinet regulated responsibility for the drone threat, allocating the Israel Defense Forces with responsibility to deal with drones originating from beyond borders, and the Israel Police responsibility for dealing with internal drone threats.
The Air Defense Forces has spent years preparing measures against drones, informed Shohat, saying that “since then, the threat has grown exponentially and looks set to grow further in ways that could be difficult to imagine at this time.”