In this post I’m going to talk about the drone incident at Gatwick Airport in December 2018.
You can read this post or listen while I narrate it in this video:
Summary of Events
On the evening of December 19th 2018 Gatwick Airport’s only runway was closed for safety reasons after a drone was spotted flying over it several times. Inbound flights were diverted to other airports in the UK or northern Europe while outbound flights were cancelled.
Although the runway was closed the airport itself remained open since no one was really sure when flights would resume. The runway was re-opened at about 3 am the following morning but quickly shut again when the drone reappeared.
After several more sightings the runway remained closed throughout Thursday 20th, during which time the Army was called to assist the Police in their search for the drone pilot.
There was another sighting of the drone at about 10pm on Thursday 20th.
By the morning of Friday December 21st no further sightings had been reported, the runway re-opened, and flights in and out resumed.
There were reports of another sighting on the evening of Friday 21st December and flights were diverted again. But subsequently they resumed and it emerged that Sussex Police had arrested a man and a woman in connection with the “criminal use of drones”.
It was said that the Israeli-developed Drone Dome system had been deployed, and that this presumably enabled swift reaction and subsequent arrests. Obviously this caused huge disruption and upset to tens of thousands of passengers and their children.
And inevitably it had a big impact on all those who have a business interest in aviation, not just the airlines but all the ancillary services too.
About 1,000 flights were cancelled or diverted on one of the busiest weeks of the year, affecting 140,000 passengers. While the incident was ongoing there was so much speculation in the press and social media that any facts were hard to find.
Yet, despite all the efforts of the authorities the perpetrator(s) evaded capture and no one was sure who was flying the drone(s) and why.
As the hours passed speculation was rife on social media with people suggesting it was all due to a prank by a teenager and that the drone was the affordable type of Christmas toy that could be bought on any high street.
On a full battery charge these types of drones can stay aloft for 20-30 minutes depending on wind conditions. But as the hours passed three things became apparent.
What Drones? Which Pilots?
First, the drone or drones would disappear and reappear, suggesting it either landed for a battery change or there was more than one drone.
Secondly, despite the best efforts of the police and the public the drone pilot evaded capture.
And thirdly, based on the descriptions of eye-witnesses this was not the sort of quadcopter drone that an hobbyist would use but something much more substantial, like hexacopter or even an octacopter, designed to carry professional grade cameras or other relatively heavy equipment.
Yet, despite over 50 sightings of the drone(s) and a few still images and video clips there was no definite identification.
The outcry in the media by this incident raised a lot of questions, one of which was why drones are able to fly at all near airports.
The laws are in place but why did the technology itself permit flying near active runways?
Drone Defence Systems
DJI Innovations, arguably the biggest drone manufacturer in the world, have been developing drones since they released the DJI Phantom several years ago.
DJI created the No-Fly Zones for its drones in 2013 and has been developing this feature ever since.
Their geofencing Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) software is now much more sophisticated, with enhanced features for airports and secure areas.
The DJI AeroScope, seen deployed at Gatwick, is a drone detection platform designed for use at sensitive sites. It can detect drones within a 50 km radius. So the geonfencing technology does exist but as we all know, those with criminal or malicious intent will find a way to circumvent safeguards and they are not deterred by laws and regulations.
Speculation that this was an act of terrorism seemed less likely as time went on.
Terrorists, by definition, aim to cause terror, usually by randomly killing people and blowing things up, but there had been no deaths or injuries, and no destruction.
On Thursday December 20th a BBC journalist speaking on Radio 2 suggested that it might be the work of an environmental protester or group.
This was the most plausible suggestion to date as the actions have all the hallmarks of activists who have a track record of causing massive disruption at airports.
Perhaps then this was the work of people who regard themselves as an anti-aviation activists, determined to make a point at any cost.
This was a sophisticated attack that must have involved knowledge of drones, drone software, and drone piloting over extended periods.
There is also the point that the pilots managed to evade capture for two days despite the best efforts of the Police and the Army.
Airports & Drones
This was a watershed moment for the aviation industry.
It has exposed the vulnerability of airports and their lack of defence against those with malicious or criminal intent who are willing and able to fly drones into the flight paths of civilian aircraft.
Since the Law is not a deterrent and geofencing software within drones is not mandatory or can be hacked or reprogrammed, it must be the airports who regain control.
They need defence systems of their own to protect themselves from any incursion, malicious or accidental.
Whether the drone is flown by an elusive eco-activist or it’s an out of control UAV carried on the wind, it should be possible to bring it down quickly and safely.
Airports, power stations, prisons, and military sites must be equipped with Drone Dome, DJI AeroScope, or other drone defence systems.
This event will have several outcomes one of which might be the fact that it may embolden those who admire the perpetrators to carry out similar stunts at any airport globally.
Whatever countermeasures are chosen they won’t come soon enough.