The Big Interview: Andrew McQuillan- 'It isn't easy to know the motive behind drone attacks but we are successful in protecting airspace'
Andrew McQuillan said he always knew he was destined to run his own business. But back when he chose his A-level subjects of physics and IT, he had no idea that business would involve being at the beck and call of some of the world's most respected security agencies fighting devices that were yet to be created.
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Andrew says he used to avoid law and law enforcement-related roles to prevent being "questioned on my ability or contacts" and accusations of trading on the family name.
As the son of the former acting deputy chief constable of the PSNI Alan McQuillan, he felt like any innate aptitude for policing or law could be overlooked as he would face accusations of favouritism or nepotism.
"If I went to get jobs or promotions I could always see that connection being an issue," he adds.
But he now owns and operates a successful drones company, Crowded Space Drones. Much of its work is highly-sensitive, but he is now believed to be trying to intercept drones which have halted operations at some of the world's biggest airports including Gatwick, Heathrow and more recently Newark.
While he wouldn't confirm nor deny the firm's role in the recent Heathrow drone sightings, Andrew says: "We are working with the UK government to protect UK airspace and airports and we have been successful in doing that."
He says that the safety of the public was an area of interest when pursuing his dream of owning a business and so got involved in security, setting up Select Security in 2006 aged 19. It provided services for several series of Game Of Thrones, as well as the BBC drama production Line Of Duty.
His security guards also worked on the film set of Robot Overlords, shot mostly in Co Down and starring X Files actress Gillian Anderson and Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley.
And he says he had a team based a Pinewood Studios in London to work on the Star Wars set. Other contracts included many of Northern Ireland's councils and security for events including Belfast Pride, the Lord Mayor's Parade, the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, the North West 200 and Belfast Culture Night, but it was on the set of Game of Thrones where the idea for his current business, Crowded Space Drones, was born.
"We covered all security aspects at Game of Thrones but in 2013 we started getting paparazzi drones coming on to the set and we needed to find a way to intervene.
"It was especially problematic during series six in 2014 and 2015 and that's when it became prolific and we found that half of our security team was dealing with drone issues alone," he says. "I remember there was a major battle scene taking place just outside Saintfield where one of the main characters, Jon Snow would come back to life.
"Those scenes went on for six months. We rented every hillside and placed security staff covertly and overtly," adds Andrew.
"At that time there was no real technical equipment to detect drones. There were military devices but they cost a lot of money and weren't always guaranteed to work."
And so in 2015, having foreseen the growing security problem drones presented and after completing a degree in crowd control at a London university, Andrew set up Crowded Space Drones to offer videoing and public safety services.
It followed what he described as a "controlled wind-down" of Select Security and "an orderly transfer of contracts" in 2015. At the time, Andrew said he was devastated at losing his business. "This has been my whole life for most of the past 10 years. I'm the sole director and I've been left with nothing."
Describing Crowded Space Drones, Andrew says: "There are two aspects to what we do; production and live broadcasting for things like news events and concerts as well as spider cameras for sports games and the other side is the public safety bit.
"We have a special licence granted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the US to fly drones in crowded areas. That safety licence allows us to get closer to scenes than any other company could which means we can provide a very niche service that works globally."
Andrew says the team has been approached by Australian police for counter-terrorism work and is active in America where it has placed staff including his deputy, Bethany Gorman, who he says is the talented creative at the firm.
A boost in drones sales which Andrew says peaked over Christmas 2017 is reflected by Crowded Space Drones' other work. Today just 10% of the firm's work is based in Northern Ireland, representing 5% of the company's turnover.
"It is a niche place to be," he goes on. "We can expand our NI work as we want to but with the uncertainty here from a lack of Executive we are happy going international and not placing all our eggs in one basket."
He adds that the business is growing at a phenomenal rate with January's figures up six-fold on last year's. "In January 2019 we have already had sales equivalent to 22% of our 2018 annual turnover.
"We expect to increase by 350% in 2019 and take on approximately 10 new full-time jobs. We already added our first additional full-time role in January this year and we have two more planned for May and more in the summer," says Andrew.
Those new staff members will work on everything from BBC 3 shows to "any aerial shot you see on Sky News", ESPN America and a special radio broadcast that will allow Andrew to work with his idol.
"I can't say who that is but it's someone I've listened to for years and admired and it will be great to get to work with them."
Among Andrew's most prominent televised work since the company was founded is the acclaimed Ballymurphy Massacre documentary, BBC's DIY SOS series, Sky News bulletins, Dallas Cowboy matches, some of the UK's biggest festivals as well as MTV work.
He says the licence awarded to the firm by the Civil Aviation Authority has earned it the respect of broadcasting names as well as security authorities.
Such is the team's expertise in drones, Andrew says Crowded Space's former head pilot is now head of drones at the CAA. "He comes from practical experience and is making massive changes to the CAA, changing how they tell people what the laws are and offering outreach programmes to do so.
"You will find that most people who fly drones want to do so legally but laws are changing all the time and staying up to date with them is difficult which is where the workshops come in. It's a great idea."
Anyone who flies a drone is currently governed by the CAA's Air Navigation Order 2016, specifically Article 241 (endangering the safety of any person or property), Article 94 (small unmanned aircraft) and Article 95 (small unmanned surveillance aircraft). Those found breaking the law can be prosecuted.
In light of disturbances at airports in the UK, Andrew says an series of prosecutions is imminent.
He continues: "I was flying out of Newark and an hour after the plane took off there was a drone attack. It isn't easy to know what the motive behind these attacks is but I would say it's more about damage to the economy.
"We have deployed teams to over 200 events in the UK and we find most of those flying drones illegally are idiots or claim to be idiots but the reality is they are educated suitably so the drone is seized from them.
"We don't want people going to jail, we just want to keep people safe."
While a huge part of Andrew's job is to protect from drone attacks, he says drone technology has proved useful when properly used.
"Every day drones are saving lives. They are fantastic when the right people are behind them and for us some of our work is replacing the police helicopter and we love doing what we do and the direct results we get through the actions of our pilots."
Looking to the future, Andrew says he will continue working with authorities to combat the influx of airfield drone invasions but he is also looking forward to the firm's' many broadcasting commitments.
His job, he says, is a labour of love which is why he adds: "I'm not distressed that I don't have many hobbies outside of what I do because for me this is my passion".
"At the minute I live between Northern Ireland and London and because last year was a massive growth year for us I spent 32 weeks on the road.
"I do, when I have the time, like to give back and although that may sound clichéd, it's what I did before we went through that growth phase.
"I worked on the SOS bus in Belfast and after that I volunteered for the policing board as a custody visitor. There was a team of 60 of us and we would turn up unannounced to police custody centres to ensure they were doing a great job and it's regrettable that I was too busy to continue that but I believe the door is still open there."
His passion for travel is satiated by his new working contracts around the world with trips to the US allowing him to plan in things like a Nashville sightseeing tour including the Jack Daniels factory.
"I always tag on things that I want to do like see the koala bears in Australia or visiting my deputy in LA where we cover concerts.
"I really enjoy what I do. I get to do a different thing every day."