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Anticipating threats

December 21, 2018


The disruptive use of drones at Gatwick Airport is certainly unprecedented, unique and concerning. That a major element of the country’s infrastructure and the lives of 120,000 people can be thrown into so much disarray by simple and no doubt readily available pieces of equipment is worrying. But was it unforeseeable, was it a “black swan”? Work we did back in 2014 suggests to me it was not.

SAMI had been commissioned by a transport sector client to monitor technology developments. Drones were then beginning to be used in an increasing number of applications and it was clear from our horizon scanning that they would soon fall in price and become much more widespread, and turn into the common retail product we see today.

We could also see some early signs that this would cause problems.  Some drones were crashing, there were some near misses with aircraft, a drone was even present at a terrorist attack in Sydney. That year there was the first conviction (in France) for the dangerous use of a drone.

At the time drones fell under regulations designed for model aircraft.  We noted that there were calls for a “drone law”, and indeed over the years there have been increasingly strict regulations put in place to control their use and create “no-fly” zones.

But moving on from technology to the way it is operated, we realised that the rapid growth in sales would lead to their use by people ignorant of the regulations or even wilfully disobeying them.  Increasing the penalties for misuse might cause some to think twice, and give the satisfaction of punishment, but it didn’t actually prevent dangerous activities. The issue would become one of enforcement. Back in 2014 we used the analogy that policing drones would be like trying to stop kids from riding motorbikes on the common, not like licensing helicopter pilots.

We were also concerned about deliberate malicious use of drones.  The Gatwick incident, although hugely disruptive, is in many ways more benign than it might have been. The potential use of drones by terrorists or others wishing to cause serious harm was clear back in 2014. The drone operators at Gatwick could have deliberately flown the drone into a plane as it was landing, causing untold havoc. Drones could be armed with explosives and targeted at nuclear installations.  Drone defence systems would be necessary.

Clearly these were not in place at Gatwick – and presumably not at other UK airports either. Why was such a plausible scenario not acted upon?

It calls into question the way in which decisions are taken about the impact of unprecedented and possibly unlikely events. Again in an airport context, spending on snow-clearing equipment in the UK is seen as unnecessary because we have so little snow it is better to bear the cost of a little disruption – in Jamaica it would be stupid, in Norway essential.

Are there lessons for other technologies?  The FBI some years ago considered the possibility of autonomous vehicles being used as “suicide” bombs, though presumably their use to cause traffic chaos would easier to stop than the Gatwick drone attack.   The risks of cyber-attacks on the Internet of Things has been noted, but has it been acted upon?

When money is tight (and isn’t it always) spending on contingency plans coping with theoretical problems can be seen as wasteful. That such significant sums are being spent on a “no-deal” Brexit tells us something!  Structured scenario planning can help decision-makers evaluate the effects of plausible but uncertain futures, identifying those high risk, low probability events that need serious attention.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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