John Stillwell, PA
Counter drone equipment is deployed on a rooftop at Gatwick airport in Gatwick, England, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. Flights resumed at London's Gatwick Airport on Friday after drones sparked about 36 hours of travel chaos including the shutdown of the airfield, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded or delayed during the busy holiday season.

Five years ago, some far-sighted, if perhaps a bit trigger-happy, people in Deer Trail, Colorado, population 700, had a bright idea. They put a referendum on the ballot that would have allowed people to buy hunting licenses to shoot drones from the sky.

What a simple, practical solution.

Of course, the plan came with a few potential problems. It may be irritating and, as we’ve recently seen, dangerous, to have unmanned mosquito-like machines buzzing overhead, but flying bullets aren’t exactly fun, either.

So it may have been a good thing the referendum failed, but I’ve thought a lot about those folks ever since.

I knew trouble was brewing in 2014 when a triathlon runner in Australia was hit in the head by a drone that fell from the sky. A videographer was using it to film the event but claimed someone else hijacked the drone, possibly using a cellphone.

As I wrote at the time, history shows that every new breakthrough that streaks through the sky trails clouds of both promise and dread. And that’s why, as a society, we can’t have nice things.

In a month when the government shutdown has taken all the oxygen out of news cycles, drones still have managed to gain a foothold on the world’s attention span. Unless we find some sort of solution, they could dominate the news, in a bad way, on some future day.

Trouble began in December, when London’s Gatwick Airport spotted nearby drones three days in a row. About 1,000 flights were disrupted, ruining travel plans for about 140,000 people, or roughly the entire population of West Valley City.

Then in January, Heathrow Airport had to close for about an hour because of a drone.

Now, Newark’s Liberty Airport has been bitten. On Tuesday, two nearby drones were spotted at about 3,500 feet, and flights temporarily were halted. How long until it happens at an airport near you?

Maybe the chance to interrupt a major airport is just too tempting for bored people who are tired of disrupting virtual worlds on video games. Maybe law enforcement’s apparent inability to catch the operators makes mischief that much more appealing. Or maybe something more sinister could be coming.

If a flock of birds could bring down Captain Sullenberger’s jet a decade ago, imagine what a drone might do in a midair collision.

During the Obama administration, the media focused on the military’s use of drones to fire missiles at suspected terrorist targets abroad. The relative lack of attention today does not mean those strikes have ceased. A group known as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism keeps track of such things and the harrowing stories of innocent people who become collateral damage. It would be naïve to think the nation’s enemies wouldn’t try to retaliate some day using inexpensive drones of their own.

Meanwhile, people are working on solutions. The best idea may be to jam the frequencies being used to operate the drones, effectively killing them. But a recent report in The Economist quoted Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Britain’s Cranfield University, as saying this might also damage an airport’s radio and navigation systems.

Other ideas include firing a net to capture the offending craft.

We had better hope one or more of these become reliably usable, as well as cheap enough for airports to keep on hand.

Meanwhile, a Chinese company, JD.com, has begun making drone deliveries of books and supplies to remote parts of Indonesia. Amazon still is working on a drone delivery system of its own, and on federal permission to use it. Drones are being used to take aerial photos, and search and rescue teams already are finding them useful.

9 comments on this story

Like it or not, the skies are bound to become more crowded. Separating the bad drones from the good ones could be more challenging, especially if bad guys perfect ways to hijack the good ones.

As history has shown, the bad guys can be relied upon to try to twist every advance to their own advantage.

By the way, the Economist also said an Idaho company has developed cartridges it claims are specially designed to shoot the things out of the sky.

If that idea ever catches on, I know of some folks in Deer Trail, Colorado who might want jobs.