Drones, Drones, Drones – How can we protect airports & skies after Gatwick?

As the world knows, Gatwick airport (the second busiest in the UK) was closed  for about 36 hours on 19th and 20th December because of repeated drone sightings near the airfield. The Police said they received 115 reports of sightings with 93 confirmed as  “credible” with a pilot, airport staff and police officers amongst the reporters.

The risk of collision and damage with an aircraft is a nightmare scenario.

The airport has a one kilometre exclusion zone around it, in which  it is illegal to fly any unauthorised drones. In addition, drones must be kept below 120 metres (400 feet) at all times.

The closure impacted one thousand flights and 140,000 people.The police reportedly sent in snipers to shoot the drones down.

Source: Daily Mail

Sussex Police arrested a couple and held them for 36 hours, believing there were “credible reasons” to do so. The UK Press went to town on the couple with headlines pillorying the suspects.

Later it was found that the male had been at work during the entire drone incident. The couple  said they felt “violated” after their home was searched and their identities exposed.

Sussex Police’s chief constable stated he felt “really sorry” what [they] experienced and the feeling of violation around it. Chief Constable York also said he was “convinced the grounds for arrest were well-founded“.

Sussex Police Chief Giles York told BBC Radio that police have searched 26 potential launch sites near Gatwick airport but do not believe they have found the drone that was seen near the runway on Dec. 19 and 20. Two drones found near the airport have been ruled out of being involved.

In the period since the Sussex Police have said that there were no drones involved and then back tracked on that statement with Chief Constable York stating that he was “absolutely certain that there was a drone flying throughout the period that the airport was closed“. The police have also admitted that some of the sightings may have been police drones searching for the rogue drones.

Gatwick Airport has offered a £50,000 reward through UK Crimestoppers for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the chaos.

Drone use is growing at a rapid rate across the globe at a time when air space over many nations is pretty congested.  Drones, it is estimated, will lead to the employment of 100,000 people across Europe and produce an economic impact exceeding ten billion Euros annually.

On the converse side: “A drone looks quite fragile but the battery is hefty and if you compare a drone to a bird, then it could be potentially more dangerous if it goes through the engine or hits the fuselage.” This video simulates the impact of a bird and a drone strike on an aircraft:

In 2017, there were 92 close calls in the UK while pilots reported more than 2,100 incidents in the USA and 135 in Canada. Airports in New Zealand, Norway, the UAE have all been closed because of unauthorised drone activity.

The growth of drones has outstripped policy making in many jurisdictions, however, and rules are not standardised globally. The Gatwick incident illustrated to me that  authorities are under prepared for this scenario and appeared to operate in a knee jerk and chaotic fashion.  If this chaos occurred at Gatwick, what could happen at a smaller, less resourced airport such as Siam Reap, Victoria Falls,  Kathmandu for example?

Source: Walmart

It is quite clear that passengers, airlines and airports need to be assured of protection. As a frequent passenger, I would like to see the following implemented globally:

  1. Drone scenario planning must be included in all airport contingency planning with police, military and airports involved in planning and drills
  2. A global agreement that bans all drones within a 3 nautical mile (5. 5km) distance of an airport without specific permission from the airport
  3. Serious equipping of all airports with equipment designed to take down any drones in their exclusion zones
  4. Careful tracking of the sale and manufacture of military drones (although I would prefer they were banned) to ensure that they do not fall into “wrong hands”.  A drone fired through an airport at one and a half times the speed of sound would be catastrophic.
  5. Pilots to be trained in responding to drones without putting their craft and passengers at more danger.
  6. Licensing of all drone operators globally. I do not understand that we require licences to drive a car, fly a plane, catch a fish and own a dog but we allow the sale and operation of these flying machines to anyone. No one should be able to buy a drone without some sort of registration.
  7. The compulsory installation by manufacturers of some sort of transponder identifier into all drones

Legislators, airports and airlines need to move fast. While most drone operators will be law abiding, Gatwick showed us what drones in unscrupulous or evil hands can do. Air safety must be protected.


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