A flight path for risk mitigation
Are drones simply an eye in the sky or a fly in the ointment for insurers, asks Stevie Knight?
There is a lot of hype around drones: on the one hand, they are going to be 'the cargo movers of the future', while on the other, one UK broadsheet said we should “fear the use of killer drones”. The conclusion is likely to be somewhere between the two.
To start with, it's not all 'high-flying' speculation. Drones are already undoubtedly practical, allowing insurers “a relatively inexpensive way to do some tyre-kicking” of any costly assets that come up for renewal, says Nick Humphrey of law firm Kennedys. “If it is valuable property or hardware, the drones will go in and capture any defects, comparing the assessment with the previous pictures so you get visible benchmarking over time,” he explains. “Drone technology gives you the ability to gain a full overview in a far more cost-effective and reliable way than by using the human eye,” he adds.
This is behind the blossoming of tech like Tritex NDT's inspection probes, mounted on drones that can be bought in the shops for little more than pocket money. Kiss the face of your critical infrastructure and the probe will give a proper reading of the metal's thickness, never mind the paint or rust on the surface.
Of course, there's also drones’ ability to respond to emergencies: “In the US, following the last hurricane season, the major insurers were able to get in and assess the damage inside days: even though it was still too dangerous for helicopters,” says Mr Humphrey. “The speed and accuracy of claims processes, particularly following mass catastrophes, should be significantly improved. Drones will also help by putting some independent eyes in the sky.”
Despite this, he says, when it comes to understanding the potential of the new technology, “we are still in our infancy”.
Autonomy vs manned
Three years ago, Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority launched security surveillance drones to monitor its technology Freezone. However, these are 'line of sight' operations controlled by a pilot. In Mr Humphrey's view, where it starts to get interesting is where drone pilotage crosses paths with autonomy.
As Leander de Nooijer of Certus points out, although movement or heat-tracking CCTV is useful, “it can't hop off the pole and follow the intruder”. This, he says, is where autonomous drones win: “They can look down, using day, night or heat cameras, and follow the movement between the blocks. The gaps between the containers are a rich ground for persistent security breaches; thieves make full use of the difficulties in seeing around the boxes.”
Further, Mr de Nooijer points out: “A typical port installation can have as many as a few hundred CCTVs, but even given this, one of the main struggles of covering the waterside area is still challenging, often relying on cameras with a long-distance field of view.” It would be better to use drones to fly over the water and check what's coming in.
Most of this technology could be piloted, but Percepto and Certus have worked together on Sparrow, an autonomous security drone nested onsite within the tamper and weather-proof protective shell of its recharging station and which can fly itself around a facility on a preset path and dock again, fully automatically. Sparrow can also carry out checks in dangerous goods areas where a port will want elevated security on demand, without the expense of installing inflexible infrastructure, says Mr de Nooijer. “Pricewise, that makes sense,” he adds.
Drones will, inevitably, create a significant shift in the way ports and their insurers evaluate risk. “Given the scale of port facilities, the issues around security, unlawful interference or theft, it's a no-brainer - autonomous drone surveillance will potentially have a huge impact on how these sorts of risks are priced by insurers,” says Mr Humphrey, adding there will also be an indirect effect on premiums when these advanced security systems lead to a reduction in incidents.
The fly in the ointment is that regulations are trailing behind the technology, says Oleg Vornik of Droneshield. Since drone technology's early days, the overarching air safety body decided that drones were 'not an international issue' so it has been left to individual countries to shape their own legislation. In many places, this has left drones in a regulatory quagmire, as even piloted, line-of-sight control is prohibited in some areas, let alone autonomous running. If - or when - drones are permitted for cargo and ultimately people transportation, the implications under domestic aviation liability laws and international conventions will need to be addressed.
This present state of affairs hasn't helped attract investment as stakeholders need to know their innovation can, at the very least, be used.
While there are moves afoot to regulate the technology and make it traceable, it's patchy and there are obvious shortcomings. In Dubai, for example, every drone has to be registered and fitted with a device to make it visible on a radar map. Further, drones will be mandated to have geo-sensing devices installed in them on manufacture, so, for example, it simply won't fly within five kilometres of an airport - something that might also be extended to other infrastructure facilities.
Mr Humphrey admits that while this mitigates accidental intrusion, it probably won't have too much effect on those determined to use drones maliciously: “You get back to an argument similar to that of 'registered vs unregistered' handguns,” he points out; those outside the law will continue in their attempts to circumvent security elements, particularly while the use of drone-blocking technology remains restricted and under development.
Current responses to the threat appear very mixed. While it might be assumed that governmental or military bodies would have something to say about protecting a country's port assets, in reality, things are pretty confused. When questioned, even the biggest and most technologically advanced of facilities didn't come up with a clear answer about who would be responsible for taking on security breaches by drones.
The confusion should not be that surprising. “Ownership of airspace, in most countries, is a fascinating subject,” says Mr Vornik. “In most places, there are clear laws against trespass, but these laws don't set out clearly how high you own the airspace above your land.” So, you can't simply shoot down a potential threat: “Destructive methods are generally just not acceptable in civilian areas because you might put a hole in an aircraft flying behind it,” he adds.
That doesn't mean ports and terminals are powerless: non-destructive or “soft-tail” drone security is gaining interest among “some of the larger ports” says Mr Vornik, predicting that will eventually flow down to medium sized facilities.
Coming full circle to the subject of insurance, Mr Vornik concludes: “We see drone threats becoming recognised as a major risk for a major port facility. There are requirements you have to address when it comes to fire hazards: now we are looking at a world where insurance companies will want to see protection against this kind of threat as well.”
LINES OF DEFENCE
The first response to a potential drone threat is detection. These days drones are hard to spot; they are generally white against a white, cloudy sky and much less noisy than they used to be.
“Even in daylight you'd be lucky to spot a white drone against a white cloud, even at a few hundred yards,” says Droneshield’s Oleg Vornik. Which, he points out, “is plenty close enough for a drone to be spying on you”.
The second line of defence is to disorientate them. “Drones talk to their controllers using a particular set of frequencies, so you can send out a strong, jamming signal. It's very focused and it won't disturb cell phones or emergency vehicles, but as a result, the drone - or swarm - will go down on the spot.” Even the autonomous variety can be defeated by blocking their video link or, if appropriate, disabling the GPS which knocks out their navigation.
Interestingly, there is an alternative to bringing a drone down: “If it appears to have something like explosives onboard, you can send it back where it came from,” says Mr Vornik.
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