*UPDATE (18/09/19):  There have still been no charges brought with relation to the disruption at Gatwick in December 2018*

First and foremost I have utmost sympathy for anyone who has been impacted by the sustained and deliberate criminal drone activity at Gatwick airport. It’s my belief that the sole purpose of this activity has been to disrupt the airport operation for as long as possible and cause as much inconvenience to as many people as possible.

Nobody has yet stepped forward and claimed responsibility for this but there is plenty of speculation that points the finger at environmental groups, a disaffected employee and even a foreign nation.

What I would be willing to speculate is that this is not a chap (it’s nearly always a chap) with a drone wanting a ‘cool’ video of a plane landing. It’s too sustained and appears organised.
The good news is that the runway has now been reopened after a 35 hour closure. As yet, there have been few details published about the incident, but here is what we do know:

  • There were reports of two drones flying in and around the airfield at 2103 on the 19th December
  • There are reported to have been up to 50 drone sightings over the airport since the first sighting, with the most recent last night (20th December)
  • The drones are described as ‘industrial’
  • The drones have been lit
  • The perpetrator has yet to be captured or identified

This incident has also highlighted that we don’t currently have effective anti-drone measures readily available. I’ve been asked a lot of questions about this – here is a summary of my answers:

Why not just shoot them down? To use a phrase coined in the Gulf War – Collateral Damage. Let’s assume that the drones that are being maliciously flown are made out of a plastic and weigh a few kilogrammes. If that’s the case, a shotgun would probably work quite well, so long as it was flying low enough for the gun to be effective and its flying over a sterile, benign environment – you don’t want to cause injury or damage as it crashes to the ground. Also, once the drone is above a few hundred feet in the air, it won’t reach it.

Use a rifle instead? Again, you have the issue of where it’s going to crash, and from a few hundred feet, it will have quite a lot of energy and could cause significant injury or damage. You also have the issue of where the bullet is going to come to earth. A couple of kilos of plastic aren’t going to absorb much of the energy from the bullet and it will continue to have lethal force for up to a few kilometres.

Use a net to catch them? Collateral damage – it’s difficult to predict that when it comes down to the ground that it’s not going to cause injury or damage. There have also been suggestions of using a drone to catch the rogue drone in a net. Though possible, this would be fiendishly difficult in practice – having lots of experience of operating drones, it is very difficult to gauge perspective, speed and track from the ground, even using cameras fitted on a drone. Air-to-air filming is hard enough even though the flight paths of both drones is co-ordinated and planned.

Disrupt the radio signal so it can’t be controlled anymore? This is possible and the technology exists to be able to do this. The law may not permit it in this circumstance, but let’s assume that it does. It’s my view that it’s unlikely that the drones are being flown as most people think drones are flown using a control box and radio waves. It’s possible to pre-program the drone with a flight path that requires no further intervention once it’s in the air – in this case, there will be no radio signal to disrupt.

If it is being flown using a command box and radio link, then disrupting the signal is certainly possible. If that is how it’s being flown then the collateral damage question surfaces.
Drones can be programmed to respond in several ways if the radio frequency is disrupted. Firstly they may return to the location that they took off from (assume a place unknown – it will have been clear when the drone took off, but may not be now; it could be anywhere within a couple of kilometres and the person controlling the drone may not be there any more). Secondly, it may descend to the ground in the location that the signal is disrupted. Thirdly, it may just continue going in a straight line until the battery (or fuel) runs out or it crashes into something that is at the same altitude as it, for example a tree, high rise building. Depending on how much charge is in the battery ( or fuel is on board) it could realistically fly at 30 mph for 20 minutes – that’s 10 miles which would potentially put the drone over some heavily populated areas when it eventually comes to ground.

There is also a risk of damaging other sensitive radio equipment in the vicinity, such as wifi, mobile telephone and communications equipment used by aviation industry and the emergency services.

OK – Spoof the GPS? Again, this is possible and the technology exists to be able to do this. The law may not permit it in this circumstance, but let’s assume that it does. You could potentially encounter all of the same issues as if you disrupt the radio signal and risk damaging any GPS equipment nearby, including car and phone systems as well as those used on the aeroplanes themselves.

Use a bird of prey? This has been tried before in the Netherlands and whilst effective in a training environment was much less so in the real world. They have since stopped the trials and retired the birds.

Ban drones / more legislation / registration? What has been taking place over the last few days is illegal. It is a criminal act and I don’t believe that any amount of banning, legislation or registration would have prevented it or be a deterrent to any party wanting to conduct criminal activity.

Only allow registered / qualified people to buy drones? Again, I don’t think that will deter any similar future incidents. I also suspect that the drones that have been used to close Gatwick Airport are home made and not bought from a shop

Introduce mandatory electronic ‘geo-fencing’ and no-fly zones? Most of the more expensive consumer grade drones that you can buy in shops already have a system in place. This can be hacked if you are determined enough to fly in an area that is illegal. This will prevent the ignorant or ill-advised user from flying where they shouldn’t, but not the determined criminal.

So what is the answer? I think that drones are here to stay. My view is that to prevent future criminal drone use of this nature there needs to be a concerted effort to develop an effective and safe anti-drone system (I am aware of several that are currently in development). As with all technology, criminals are quick to exploit it and law enforcement end up playing catch up.

I also think that the measures that are coming in to force in October next year coupled with the existing legislation provide a platform for safe drone operation in UK airspace. I do believe that retailers of drones need to play a more active part in making users aware of the legislation and their responsibility to fly safely.

More information on the law that governs drone flight can be found at https://dronesafe.uk/drone-code/