What Can We Learn From The Drone Disruption at Gatwick Airport?

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Our London correspondent, Malek Murison, reports on the fallout from the ‘Battle of Gatwick’ airport debacle. 

Drones are often in the news at this time of year. More often than not, the stories are harmless: Aviation authorities laying down the law to the influx of new pilots, viral videos of thousand-dollar models taking a debut flight straight into a Christmas tree. That kind of thing.

But this year things took a more sinister turn.

How Gatwick Airport’s drone disruption unfolded

At 9pm on Wednesday December 19th, two drones were spotted flying “over the perimeter fence and into where the runway operates from” at London’s Gatwick airport.

Flights at Gatwick – an airport expected to process more than half a million passengers in the five days leading up to Christmas – were grounded.

The runway reopened at 3am on Thursday morning but closed again less than an hour later after further drone sightings were reported. Apparently, these incursions were no accident.

It’s illegal to fly a drone within 1km of an airport or airfield boundary in the UK. Flying above 400ft is also against the rules. DJI’s Geofencing tech is in operation around London’s major airports. All of which appeared to rule out an overenthusiastic pilot trying out an early Christmas present, oblivious to the regulations.

What followed was a sense of confusion and chaos that felt uniquely British. Tens of thousands of passengers were left stranded in Gatwick’s terminals and at airports around the world awaiting news; reports of drone sightings kept coming in and police were said to be in a game of “cat and mouse” with a determined and sophisticated individual or group.

It quickly became clear that nobody knew what the hell was going on. It was the kind of helpless slapstick usually reserved for when any more than a centimetre of snow falls in London. But this time it was a drone, one which police claimed was “adapted and developed” for the sole purpose of ruining Christmas.

And it worked, to an extent. Britain’s second-busiest airport was locked down for 36 hours. Over 1,000 flights were diverted or cancelled. Some 140,000 passengers had their travel plans disrupted.

A drone, perhaps even the suspicion of a drone, had brought what must be one of London’s most policed, CCTV-ed locations to a total standstill.

Was there even a drone?

You would hope the decision to halt air traffic in and out of Gatwick airport for 36 hours in the busiest week of the year would only be taken if officials were certain that a threat was present.

However, as the dust begins the settle, airport security, police and the military personnel that were called in to assist still don’t seem to know what happened or who was responsible.

The whole incident descended further into farce when, the weekend after flights resumed, a Sussex police officer admitted it was possible that there had never been a drone in the first place.

By Monday, investigating officers backtracked and said that no, there definitely had been a drone. At least according to 67 witness statements that include accounts from the public, plane passengers, police officers and Gatwick airport staff.

Even though we’ve seen plenty of occasions in which birds, helicopters, bats and plastic bags have been mistaken for a rogue drone, it’s hard to imagine that every one of those witnesses was mistaken. Possible, of course, but very unlikely.

Yet there is some inconsistency with the messages coming out of the Sussex Police’s own Twitter account, who confirmed that the last sighting of a drone was reported on Wednesday night, less than an hour after the first drones were spotted near the airport.

We are yet to see any convincing images or footage of the drone, which seems strange given the way that nothing these days can avoid being caught on camera. What a mess.

The latest developments include the discovery of a crashed drone near the airfield’s perimeter on the 22nd. The unit was sent for forensic testing – as you’d expect – but the radio silence since suggests it may be just another unrelated clue in a mystery that may never be solved.

One unlucky husband and wife spent two days in custody before being released without charge. The man in question appears to be the nearest drone enthusiast police could locate to the airport. Unfortunately, the couple’s innocence did not prevent their identities from being publicized around the world.

In all, we are left with many, many more questions than answers. But there are at least lessons to be learned here.

A serious wake-up call

The first is that airports around the world need to be proactive and put stronger measures in place to prevent this kind of disruption from happening. The ease with which an individual or small group was able to bring Gatwick to a standstill is frightening. There’s no reason to believe this weakness won’t be exposed again.

Counter drone equipment deployed on a rooftop at Gatwick airport (PA)

It appears as though the British military eventually brought in an Israeli counter drone system from defence electronics company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The company’s ‘Drone Dome’ solution (above) is made up of a radar-based system that identifies targets, a laser system that neutralizes the drone, and a jamming system that disrupts communications between the drone and its operator.

The fact that this technology was not already in place suggests a worrying level of complacency when it comes to protecting UK infrastructure. Particularly given the rising number of near-misses reported around UK airports and incidents involving drones delivering contraband to prisons. Alternatively, it’s exposed the systems that were in place as completely ineffective.

Fortunately, the individuals involved seemed intent on causing disruption rather than something more sinister. Just imagine what could happen if a sophisticated team, armed with multiple weaponized drones and the ability to avoid current countermeasures set their sights on an airport or public event in the future.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering that we were lucky this time. We don’t know whether it was technical limitations or alternative motives that prevented this incident from becoming deadly, but the potential is there and has been for a while. This should be a wake-up call.

Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be a silver bullet counter-drone system out there capable of dealing with every type of threat. Every method has strengths and weaknesses and most can be circumvented by a determined, sophisticated group that knows what it’s doing.

The winning counter-drone companies will be those that quickly move beyond basic detection and mitigation and start thinking about scarier, more advanced scenarios in which the next generation of computer vision and autonomy is combined with deadly payloads and malicious intent.

It seems a matter of time. Will we be ready?

Calls for more legislation are opportunistic and unhelpful

In the immediate aftermath of the incident at Gatwick airport, Brian Strutton, General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) told the BBC: “We have been working closely with the Department for Transport on these issues, and we were pleased to see new drone laws put in place earlier this year, but we said they do not go far enough. The Government was clear to BALPA that they were open to extending the 1km exclusion zone, and it is now obvious that must happen urgently. BALPA is calling for a 5km exclusion zone.

“This incident also reinforces the need for registration of drones and licensing of operators so that the police can track and trace drones which are being flown dangerously or irresponsibly and for the industry to invest in technology which can detect drones and stop them from being flown near airports and aircraft.”

The concern of BALPA on behalf of its members is understandable. Particularly as the science around the damage drones can do to manned aircraft is still uncertain. BALPA’s own investigation was biased beyond belief and unhelpful rather than enlightening.

Other studies, including data from ASSURE, suggest the danger of collisions between drones and manned aircraft is heavily dependant on context: The size of the aircraft, the weight of the drone, altitude and the speed of impact all make a big difference. The risk of a drone bringing down a manned aircraft during a collision is reduced at low speeds and low altitudes, such as those when a plane is coming into land or taking off.

But that, of course, is assuming there isn’t a deadly payload involved.

Read more: Could Manufacturers Do More to Ease the Drone Industry’s Collision Anxiety?

It isn’t immediately clear how stronger legislation will prevent deliberate incursions that are obvious attempts to cause chaos and disruption. Endangering the safety of an aircraft is already a criminal offence in the UK that carries a hefty prison sentence.

So rather than paint the community of professional and recreational drone pilots as operating in some kind of Wild West, BALPA would be better served highlighting the necessity for stronger countermeasures at airports, as well as contributing to studies that actually manufacturers of both drones and manned aircraft can act upon.

The damage to the industry is still unknown

In many ways, the arrest and intense media scrutiny of an innocent couple following the events at Gatwick are precursors of what is to come for commercial and recreational drone pilots. Drone technology already has a bad reputation in the public eye, largely thanks to an unhelpful focus on negative stories like this one.

Tougher regulations and further restrictions for individuals and businesses using drones will undoubtedly damage the industry and punish those who follow the rules. Let’s hope regulators don’t approach these latest events with the same degree of uninformed hysteria. Drones are doing much more good than harm out there, so that’s a drum we need to keep collectively banging.

Media organizations also have a duty to report emerging stories responsibly and avoid jumping to conclusions before all facts are known. This is something we’ve covered previously, but it’s unlikely to change any time soon.

The front page of one of the UK’s most popular newspapers following the drone incursions at Gatwick Airport. The couple were later released and discounted from the investigation.

Final thoughts

All in all, it’s a troubling time for the drone industry. The incident at Gatwick airport confirmed what we already knew: Drone technology in the wrong hands can be weaponized and cause chaos. Hopefully we will get some clarity over what exactly happened and why in the coming days.

The drone-assisted assassination attempt on the Venezuelan president earlier this year was already a wake-up call for the industry and security teams tasked with countering this emerging threat. This time, a little closer to home, disruption at Gatwick has shown that uncertainty, risk and the spectre of a drone are all you need to ground air traffic at one of Europe’s busiest airports.

Airports and counter-drone companies need to step up to the plate and start delivering solutions to stop this from happening again, while industry stakeholders continue the important work of understanding the risks drones pose to manned aircraft. In the meantime, it looks like the next bout of drone disruption is not a matter of if, but when.


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