Vodafone pilots new software to thwart rogue drones

Vodafone is testing technology to track and control drones to let authorities protect aircraft from accidents and terrorist attacks and stop incursions into “no-fly zones” such as prison and hospital airspace.

The trial comes amid mounting concern from the security services that terrorists could use drones adapted to carry small but lethal explosives to attack targets. Drones have been used for criminal purposes, such as smuggling and delivering contraband to prisoners.

Vodafone is trialling technology in Spain and Germany that would track commercial drones too small to be picked up on radar, in much the same way as air-traffic control systems work.

Authorities and aviation regulators are scrambling to make the skies safe before widespread commercial drone use is expected to become operational across Europe from next year.

In 2016, Amazon claimed its first successful UK delivery by drone – a TV streaming stick and bag of popcorn to a garden in Cambridge – with the US tech giant keen to expand its “Prime Air” service.

Vodafone is working with the European Aviation Safety Agency, tasked with developing regulations to ensure commercial drones fly safely across Europe.

“This will help to ensure the skies stay safe as drones become ubiquitous, everywhere,” said Johan Wibergh, group chief technology officer at Vodafone.

The system is not designed to monitor consumer drones but rather the larger classes being developed for commercial use. A preliminary trial by Vodafone last year in Seville, Spain, showed that its 4G network could be used to control a 2kg drone with a 1.3-metre wingspan.

The technology would allow the real-time tracking of each drone, accurate to within 50 metres, by drone operators and authorised bodies such as air traffic control.

It would also be possible to enable “protective geofencing”, which would automatically make drones land or return to the operator when approaching an “exclusion zone” such as an airport or a prison. Authorities would also be able to override drone control.

Vodafone hopes the technology will be ready for commercial use in 2019.