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December 21, 2018 3:30 PM, EST

Drone Industry Fears Political Attack After Gatwick Shutdown

Drone Industry Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg News

Analysts and executives are concerned that political reaction may hinder the rapid growth of the drone industry after travel was disrupted at London’s Gatwick Airport for nearly two days before police arrested two people in a nearby town.

High-profile security incidents like the one that shuttered Gatwick “tend to give politicians a knee-jerk reaction to regulate and to restrict development,” said Kumardev Chatterjee, the chief executive officer of Unmanned Life, a European drone software startup. Instead, authorities should better manage the sector to enable innovation to continue, he said.

The global commercial drone market is expected to grow on average 36% each year to reach $14.7 billion by 2022, according to a report by market research firm Technavio published earlier this year. Some of the world’s largest technology companies have been keen to seize the opportunity and demonstrate the benefits to policymakers.

In Cambridge, about 60 miles from London, Amazon.com Inc. has been testing its drone delivery services. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos announced his company’s drone plans in 2013 as a way to deliver certain items to customers within 30 minutes.

In July, Alphabet Inc. said Wing, another drone-based product delivery system, would graduate from subsidiary Google’s “moonshot” lab and become full-fledged businesses under its Other Bets unit, which includes businesses like self-driving car business Waymo. It’s set to launch in Finland in the spring of 2019, and would be the Wing division’s first European presence.

Dozens of other companies, such as Qualcomm Inc., FedEx Corp., Uber Technologies Inc., Facebook Inc., have shown interest in being involved in the future development of drones — Uber for food, others for inspecting planes.

However, crimes involving drones, such as the one at Gatwick, will only increase the scrutiny placed by governments and the public on the use of such vehicles by tech giants. Chris Fleming, the chief executive officer of Cyberhawk, which operates drones to inspect oil and gas equipment, wind turbines and industrial sites, said he was saddened by the events at Gatwick.

“It does put drone use under the microscope and presents the technology in a negative way,” Fleming said in an interview. “And that is a misrepresentation of the devices because they are a tool for good.”

While the commercial users of drones have been rapidly adopted from sports broadcasts to land surveys, regulators have been playing catch-up to ensure air safety. NATS, the U.K. air traffic control provider, in March announced that it was partnering with small avionics company called Altitude Angel, based in Reading, England, to create technology that will broadcast the position and flight data of drones, much as radar transponders do for larger, manned aircraft. NATS has said this will allow commercial drones to operate at low altitudes out-of-the-sight of their pilots. Those conducting these out-of-sight drone flights will have to register their flight plans at least an hour before takeoff on a new online portal.

Drone Industry

The European Union is currently working toward new bloc-wide rules, to be adopted as soon as over the next year, which would require all civilian drones to be registered, allowing for remote identification of the aircraft. That would help authorities more quickly identify any perpetrators in a similar event such as Gatwick. In addition, the new rules will allow member states to set out their own geographical zones where drone flights can be restricted.

“The incident underlines that we need to remain vigilant and ensure that both safety and security of drones are taken into account,” said a spokesman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body.

In the U.S., the Department of Transportation has authorized pilot programs for commercial drone uses in 10 states, including activities such as night flights and package deliveries. Alphabet’s Wing is among those participating in those pilots, as is Flirtey, which has helped Domino’s Pizza deliver by drone.

The incident at Gatwick may be positive for the drone industry as it could speed up the creation of rules to introduce more complex drone management systems.

“The Gatwick episode will serve as a sort of wake-up call to policy-makers across the world,” said Aapo Markkanen, an analyst at researcher Gartner Inc. “While the new regulations are likely to make consumers’ use of drones more restricted, they will at the same time make the operating environment easier and more certain for enterprises and public-sector organizations.”

For now, incidents such as the Gatwick drone incursion are likely to damage public trust in drones, said Elaine Whyte, who heads the U.K. drone practice group for consulting firm PwC. “Commercial drone operators will be registered and have to undertake training to operate them professionally,” she said. She said it was up to the police to enforce existing rules on drone flights.

“Today the skies are dark,” Unmanned Life’s Chatterjee said. “We need to have a system in place in which drones in the sky are registered and communicate back to an authority.”