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Game of Drones: How UAVs can be friend and foe for data centres

The Gatwick debacle recently threw drones into the spotlight. With the ability to take thermal images to assist with maintenance or be strapped with C4 explosives to take out infrastructure weaknesses, drones quite rightly have a mixed reputation.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, for short. While this might not roll off the tongue like the original Superman introduction, it’s certainly a phrase we can expect to hear more and more.

Once seen as a toy for hobbyists, drones have become a big business with the commercial market estimated to now be worth over $127 billion, according to PwC.

Commercial technology is slowly shifting the baggage associated with military, unmanned drone applications and is being adapted to complete a variety of tasks quicker and more efficiently than humans.

From delivering medical supplies in emergency situations to extinguishing fires at height; drone technology is proving a worthy technology ally in multiple industrial applications.

At the recent CES technology show in Las Vegas drone leader DJI showcased a service for emergency services. The latest drone can stream split-screen videos of a scene in both heat vision and normal visible spectrum, with a potential to use in search-and-rescue missions.

“The use cases are absolutely limitless,” says Byron Messaris, senior consultant, UK and EU, Frost & Sullivan (F&S). “With drone applications you actually completely offset the human risk and offset the need to have certain staff onsite.”

Messaris references one example of a recently procured drone services contract for the inspection of hospital roof infrastructure. Potential problems such as blocked gutters or excessive moss were highlighted, before being relayed to and fixed by another company.

“In such cases it replaces the need to have personnel using scaffolding and ladders for physical inspections, which can be dangerous, especially with the UK weather.”

Future-tech Delivery drone flying in city

Assassin drones

Despite the outlined benefits, drones have been misused for other purposes. The Gatwick airport Christmas case, with over 140,000 passengers disrupted due to rogue drones interfering with flights, is one example.

Other drone-related stories include contraband being smuggled over prison walls and even an explosive drone being used in a failed assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“There will come a time when drones will be so far advanced, they will be considered to be some of the most dangerous types of airborne vehicles in the world,” warns Messaris.

“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and with drones, there’s inevitably going to be a nefarious use of the technology.”

Likewise, even futurist Max Tegmark paints quite an apocalyptic prediction in his novel Life 3.0.

“Once mass produced, small AI-powered killer drones are likely to cost little more than a smartphone. Whether it’s a terrorist wanting to assassinate a politician or a jilted lover seeking revenge on his ex-girlfriend, all they need to do is upload their target’s photo and address into the killer drone: it can then fly to the destination, identify and eliminate the person, and self-destruct to ensure that nobody knows who was responsible.”

Data centre protection

Many data centre operators may not initially perceive drones to be an immediate threat. Yet security consultant Adam Ringle from the US believes a single picture is the only information needed to start a series of events to bring a data centre build to a standstill.

“For a lower tier data centre, if somebody is flying over what’s the worst they’re going to do? Get better images? The real threat comes with thermal imaging.”

Ringle says consumer grade drones can be modified to carry over three pounds of C4 explosives.

“Somebody may be able to take a picture the day before to find out where the cooling system, gas or electric lines are. The next day they could fly a drone into it with 3.4 pounds of C4 and then it’s game over.”

Serious stuff indeed and certainly food for thought the next time you hear a drone buzzing in the sky.

His company Adam Ringle Consulting advises companies on creating policies for dealing with emergencies, like drones or workplace shooters. For data centres, he believes it’s a lot about education.

“You need to teach professionals to look up, instead of around and out to the parking lot,” he says. “There’s a methodology called the 10-degree scan of the sky, used by plane pilots, so they don’t miss anything.”

Drone security levels also depend on the location, adds Ringle. For example, a data centre build near to a military base will be in protected airspace, so drones will be prohibited from flying there.

Future-tech Drone thermal image

Thermal scanning

C4 to one side, drones can also be a friend to data centres, not just a potentially explosive foe.

Ringle believes as part of operation & maintenance routines, “preventative thermal scanning” should be carried out weekly. An aerial flight over data centres with thermal imaging can help to benchmark assets within the infrastructure.

“Take a bearing in an air conditioning unit – you may have three units on the outside of a building. If scanning regularly, you may see one bearing showing up hotter than the others. Repeat the scan and if this same bearing shows up hotter, it shows you this is about to fail.”

He adds: “You can then plan to mitigate that problem before it shuts down and ceases…down the road this can translate to less downtime – it’s about predicting infrastructure failure.”

Regulatory catch up

The Gatwick debacle threw not only drones into the media spotlight but the regulation surrounding them.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), drones must not be flown closer than 1km from the boundary of a protected aerodome. Yet the rogue drone operator, aptly nicknamed ‘Drone Wolf’ by a UK tabloid newspaper, managed to bring one of the UK’s busiest airports to a standstill without repercussion.

F&S’s Messaris believes drone regulations can be both a help and hindrance.

“Despite the absolutely limitless cases, the difficulty lies in the regulation on whether such use cases can go ahead,” he adds. “This is where we find the biggest block. There are a lot of companies in the UK that are waiting to get a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) from the CAA because of regulatory bureaucracy that needs to happen when you’re flying drones like this.”

Future-tech Assassin Drone monitoring barbed wire fence on state border or restricted area.

Jamming elements

Following the disruption at the Sussex airport, Gatwick is expected to be spending £5 million alone on anti-drone technology. The equipment can detect and jam communications between a drone and its operator and was used by the RAF in Gatwick last month, according to the BBC.

One system procured by the UK is the Israeli-developed Drone Dome which uses “radar detection, electro-optical (EO) identification and communication jamming elements of the system”.

While perhaps overkill for a traditional data centre, Ringle says such systems are limited across the Atlantic.

“If you talk about disabling or forcing a drone to land, or taking over a drone, any of those types of technologies of anything that emits any kind of radiation or pulse, or electromagnetic signal – in the US they are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission,” he says. “There are very strict regulations on who can use those technologies. Currently they are limited to military applications by the FCC.”

Drones are one example where the technology and applications have evolved much quicker than the regulation, currently chasing its tail. While not immediately perceived as a threat or benefit to data centres, the potential for drones to both disrupt and improve operations is there.

The question is: are you ready?