UK-based company Crowded Space Drones have become synonymous with drone use at major events. It is hard to find a major event they do not have a role in, either through protecting against illegal drones or using drones for crowd safety and counter-terrorism.
As a result, their team travel around the world to assist governments and law enforcement on this very current threat to crowded places.
We talked to Andrew McQuillan, Director of Crowded Space Drones, to find out how those responsible for crowded places and event management can protect themselves.
Do you think drones pose a threat to crowds?
Through various aspects of our work dealing with illegal drones, we have verified there is a threat to crowded places and major events from drones. The vast majority of these are people being reckless rather than with criminal intent.
In the summer of 2019 we dealt with almost 1,000 illegal drones at UK major events, geographically across all of the United Kingdom. We now have a basis to classify the level of risk posed. For example, based on our data, a major event in Belfast or Swansea is much more likely to have illegal drone activity than Birmingham.
At the same time, it is crucial to not overstate the issue. Many major events passed off without illegal drone activity, however we always advise you put robust measures in place such as well briefed procedures.
What are the current rules and legislation in place to protect crowded places from drones?
Almost all drone legislation is contained within the Air Navigation Order 2016, which gets updated usually a few times a year. This states that any drone cannot fly within 150m of any crowded place (referred to in law as congested area) or specifically a crowd. As the law states drones cannot fly over 120m (400ft) above ground, the 150m restriction means drones cannot overfly crowded spaces or crowds.
You can hold a permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones in these areas, however they almost never reduce the requirement to be 150m from crowds.
Due to our experience and specialism, we have obtained a licence to fly as close as 20m as our flights are typically for counter-terrorism and public safety.
Unfortunately, from a crowded spaces point of view, 2020 brings the adoption of European drone laws into the UK. This means drones will be able to fly closer and due to the way the new legislation is structured around the weight of each drone, it is becoming exceptionally confusing to work out what is a legally flown drone and what is illegal.
In our opinion this new legislation adds a complexity that is detrimental to the safety of crowded spaces from drones.
Do we shoot the drones out of the sky to stop them?
In the UK legislation does not permit use of technology to take drones out of the sky in any way.
You can obtain a licence from the Home Office and a Police Gold Commander but this is reserved for confirmed attacks such as Gatwick and Heathrow or visiting Presidents/Kings/Queens.
It is also prohibitively expensive with most solutions costing north of £10-15,000 per twelve-hour deployment.
Our work for the UK Government and major events has seen positive results through tracking illegal drones and locating the pilot. We use a multitude of electronic systems combined to achieve this and it has a high success rate.
The biggest stumbling block is the lack of powers for security to deal with the pilots and offences as they are not indictable. This is a key area that we have been instrumental in influencing through a working group with DfT, NPCC, CAA and major events organisers to coordinate from 2020 onwards.
Should I just apply to close the Airspace?
Whilst this is an option, the CAA have determined the need to prove an aviation safety risk, not crowd safety risk, to issue a restriction of airspace for any 2020 event. This is a marked change from 2019 events and is due to the number of requests and also some events refusing lawful flights in the local area (such as roof surveys) which is not permitted.
An organiser who restricts airspace is still required to permit some flights where the pilot contacts them in advance with timings, flight plan and purpose.
How can drones assist with crowd safety management?
The key thing that makes a drone view better than CCTV is our ability to overcome obstacles such as structures or trees, giving those in charge the best possible view.
To give an example of how effective this is, our team were involved in one incident this summer at a major event where one activity onsite finished early. This arena had been at capacity and the crowd wanted to leave that area to go to food vendors, bars and other onsite activities. The crowd could go into channels left or right of a group of traders in the connecting channel. Almost the entire crowd decided to go left, despite the right route being almost empty. CCTV was mounted around 15m above the ground.
The CCTV could not give the information the Crowd Management team needed in Event Control as it was too low down, they had to switch between multiple cameras to try and get an overview.
We took off from the far end of the site and were overhead in less than 90 seconds, we were able to give an instant overview from which the Crowd Management team reacted and stopped flow into the area. Using our high powered zoom cameras, we then could scan the area to verify no injured persons or crowd collapses had occurred.
The Crowd Management team praised our downlink as allowing them to understand the incident within seconds, rather than the minutes of trying to piece together information sources and CCTV. This undoubtedly helped prevent any injuries or worse.
What advice would you give to those responsible for crowded places and event management?
The first step is to not spend any money where you do not need to. Many events successfully protect themselves through very good procedures and switched on staff who have followed drones back to the pilot location.
If you have not previously had a significant threat from drones, this is the best initial step as long as you have a documented policy and procedures communicated to responders.
If you do have a concern or threat about drones, seek out free non-commercial advice on what the best way to deal with the problem is. As we work for the government and do not sell drone detection system installations, we are happy to give such advice at no cost. We have used most drone detection systems on the market and some may or may not be effective for an event based on topography, infrastructure and size of site etc.
The next step is to consult with Police. If they are ‘burying their heads in the sand’ about the threat of drones you will not be able to further any action if you do detect a drone. They need, and usually are, supportive of solving the issue.
All images are copyright of Crowded Space Drones and are used with full permission.