Concern over implications as CAAS investigates Changi drone intrusions
Two cases in a matter of days raise questions about airport's vulnerability and more anti-drone measures may be needed, say experts
While little is yet known about the two recent incidents of unauthorised drone activity at Changi Airport, which affected more than 60 flights, there is concern about the potential implications among analysts, industry players and the drone community.
Drone sightings forced one of the two runways at Changi to be closed intermittently between 11pm on June 18 and 9am on June 19, resulting in 37 flights being delayed and one being diverted.
Just days later, a combination of bad weather and more drone activity on Monday night saw 18 flights delayed and seven others diverted as a precaution.
Citing ongoing investigations and operations, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) would not reveal how many drones or drone operators were involved or where the drones were spotted.
Mr Mark Yong, chief executive of drone solutions company Garuda Robotics, said the incidents were not unexpected given the accessibility of drone technology, but he was surprised by their proximity.
Mr Yong, 38, told The New Paper: "It is reasonable to suspect that it was not out of ignorance or accidental.
"If you are not living under a rock, you know that this also happened in the United Kingdom. You know this is a big deal, and after the first incident at Changi, there was quite a lot of media coverage."
Last December, unauthorised drones disrupted flights at London's Gatwick Airport for three days, affecting about 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights.
Drones also affected flights at Heathrow Airport in London and Newark airport in the US in January.
Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) Associate Professor Paw Yew Chai, who researches drone systems, said there appeared to be no effective counter-measures in place to bring down the intruding drones in the first incident, possibly exposing the vulnerability of Changi's restricted aerodrome.
"It might have triggered other rogue drone operators to challenge the laws, or in fact it might be the same rogue drone operator who challenged the laws again," he added.
It is illegal to fly drones within 5km of airports or military airbases, or at altitudes above 61m, without a permit. Offenders can be jailed for up to a year and/or fined up to $20,000.
Mr Farhan Tahir, an administrator of hobbyist Facebook group Universal Drones - Singapore, said: "No one in their right mind would actually fly (their drone) into the airport.
" Most of the hobbyists in Singapore have been educated and understand CAAS regulations."
In the past three years, there were eight reports of unauthorised drones flying within 5km of Changi Airport, but none intruded into the airport.
Foreseeing more restrictions being imposed on already strict laws, Mr Farhan added: "The hobbyists would suffer the most out of this. A lot people, including myself, are unhappy."
Garuda Robotics' Mr Yong said the incidents have cast a shadow on the drone industry.
"The unfortunate thing is this is all happening at a time when there are a lot of positive uses being test-bedded," he added, citing medical deliveries, security patrols and building inspections as potential use cases.
To tackle the problem, experts said other measures besides anti-drone technology are needed.
Singapore Polytechnic's School of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering lecturer Teo Ye Wei said it is possible for self-built drones to circumvent anti-drone systems.
SIT's Prof Paw said there is a risk of drone jammers disrupting instrument landing systems and Global Positioning System navigation, and drone-catching nets may not be viable given the large no-fly radius.
He suggested stricter penalties and mandatory registration, which Singapore is mulling, as well as regulations that only allow drones with geo-fencing features.
Looking at the longer term, Mr Yong said there has to be a framework for what will be an increasingly crowded airspace.
He said: "The knee-jerk reaction of needing more drone jammers and drone detectors only solves one part of the problem. That is easy to think of as a solution today when you might be looking at one drone in the air.
"Whatever number of manned aircraft you have in the air at this point, the estimate is that you will have 10, a hundred, even a thousand times as many drones flying in the future."