Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems: the threat of unmanned flying objects

In today’s aviation security environment, we expend many resources in order to secure both the airport and the aircraft. But, we have also seen that there are scenarios whereby one does not have to be in the airport or on board the aircraft in order to target civil aviation. The cyber threat is becoming increasingly well documented, but Capt. Jo Schoenmaker looks at one of the other ‘unconventional’ threats that is, perhaps, not being looked at in a substantive way given today’s security environment, namely that of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS).

On Monday 31st May 2010, Mr. E. Ratelband, a Dutch self-claimed ‘guru of positivism’, crashed a small, unmanned aircraft into one of the prime political buildings (‘De Ridderzaal’) in The Hague, The Netherlands. According to the media, his action was well planned weeks in advance. He had rented a seminar room on the top floor of the Novotel, opposite the governmental buildings and, from there, he had launched his ‘Robbe Charter’ Aircraft (weight approximately 2000 grams, propelled with a 5cc Magnum two-stroke engine, carrying 0.4 litre methanol as fuel), towing a banner with the title of his newest book. After a few circling manoeuvres over the area, he crashed his aircraft into De Ridderzaal. He claimed it to be a promotional stunt for his book.

There was, apparently, no link to terrorism, and nobody was hurt or injured. As such, it never became an international news headline, and the story and attention soon waned. However, one could argue that this revealed just how simple it can be to use an RPAS as an attack system.

The term RPAS is nowadays used as the reference for ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems’ but it belongs to the wider family of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which also comprises ‘autonomous’ RPAS where no human action is necessary after take-off. ICAO uses the term UAS.

An RPAS is simply an aircraft that is designed to operate with no human pilot on board, of which there are a wide variety on the market; their size can vary from micro-UASs, of only 100 grams, to high altitude/long range RPAS of over 10,000 kg – in other words, anything from a privately owned and operated matchbox-sized flying camera to an aircraft the size of a Boeing-737 used for commercial or military purposes. The military versions are commonly referred to as ‘drones’.

RPAS is clearly a new domain all over the globe and the biggest challenge is to come up with a single set of truly global rules and regulations, taking into account matters of safety, privacy, security, environment, commerce, legal liability and insurance.

The number of RPAS, and their possible modes of application, are increasing enormously and that rise is expected to increase. Their uses vary widely from (commercial and non-commercial) photography and surveillance to transport for civil and military objectives. All sorts of entities are researching new possibilities for the use of RPAS, not only defence agencies, but also companies like DHL, UPS, Amazon (Prime Air) and Google (Project Wing) are researching the possibilities of packages being delivered right to the doorstep of the customer by an unmanned aircraft.

RPAS are becoming more and more sophisticated (or even fully automated), yet easier to use and operate. This also goes for unregulated (lightweight) RPAS in the hands of inexperienced users, keeping in mind that these systems are affordable and easy to obtain.

This all means that RPAS will increasingly utilise the same airspace as commercial civil (or general) aviation. This will not only have safety implications for the industry, like the challenge of integration of RPAS in non-segregated airspace; it will require a very thorough examination of the security ramifications of RPAS operations, related to possible security scenarios involving either regulated RPAS or unregulated RPAS in hands of private owners or, worse still, terrorists.

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