Lessons to be learned from Hong Kong drones fiasco

  • It will be difficult to find those suspected of sabotaging a popular event at Victoria Harbour, but measures can be taken to thwart those who jam signals
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 7:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 11:29pm

The idea was tech-savvy and a sure-fire crowd-pleaser: to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s annual Wine and Dine Festival with a drone light show over Victoria Harbour. All went to plan for the first two evenings, the number “10” and a birthday cake lighting the night sky. But the third performance last Saturday was a disaster, with 46 of the 100 craft suddenly spinning out of formation and crashing into the water, forcing cancellations and prompting Anthony Lau Chun-hon, the executive director of the organiser, the Tourism Board, to declare that our city’s reputation had potentially been damaged. Sabotage would appear to be involved, making the severest possible punishment for the offender and preventive measures for future displays a necessity.

Hacking of the computer and software that generated the display has been ruled out. The most likely cause of the failure was jamming of the drones’ GPS signals. Scores of jamming devices are available through online websites. Finding whoever was involved will be difficult and perhaps impossible; depending on the equipment used, they could have been within a few hundred metres, perhaps a kilometre or more away.

Sabotage was obviously not on the minds of the board or the Singapore company behind the show, nor should it have been; countless such displays have been put on by a host of firms outdoors and indoors on the mainland and elsewhere and mishaps are rare. Months of testing and perfecting go into each display to ensure precision and safety. The benefits over fireworks of being more environmentally friendly, cost-effective and offering greater room for creativity mean drone shows will quickly become commonplace. Lessons like that taught by the mishap are therefore important.

HK$1 million in damage caused by GPS jamming during drone light show

Fortunately, no one was hurt and we have rules about flying drones to thank for that, but police still have to put every effort into finding the culprit so that tough punishment can be handed out as a deterrent. That in itself would go some way to correcting any harm done to perceptions of Hong Kong. But drone manufacturers and those behind displays also have to improve technology to thwart those trying to jam signals.