Gatwick airport open but location of drones still up in the air
The drones sparked the shutdown of the airfield for more than 24 hours. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Police are yet to get to the bottom of mysterious drones reported hovering over London’s Gatwick Airport that brought incoming and outgoing flights at to a standstill over multiple days.
- Police say some witness reports of drones may be have been mistaken
- Police are currently examining a damaged drone found near Gatwick for DNA and forensic clues
- It is not clear how officials will respond if another drone gets too close
Sussex Police were hopeful they had halted the disruptive and costly drone incursions during one of the heaviest travel periods of the year when they arrested a couple who live near the airport on Friday. But the pair were released on Sunday, and police said they were no longer suspects.
Tens of thousands of passengers suffered through long flight delays or were stranded by cancellations after two drones were reported as being seen above the airfield at Gatwick on Wednesday night, prompting an immediate suspension of all air traffic.
Flights were again suspended at Gatwick on Friday afternoon, after reports that another drone had been spotted over the airport.
Sussex Chief Detective Jason Tingley said on Sunday he could not rule out new drone activity at Gatwick or other UK airports.
He also said it was possible that witnesses who reported sightings after the first ones aroused alarm were mistaken.
“Of course, that’s a possibility. We are working with human beings saying they have seen something,” Mr Tingley told the BBC.
At the same, he said police were making progress in a three-pronged investigation: tracking “persons of interest”, investigating 67 reported drone sightings, and examining a damaged drone found near Gatwick.
The drone in police hands may provide useful forensic clues, such as the DNA of people who handled it, Mr Tingley said.
But rain in the area on Friday and Saturday might have washed away some evidence.
Airport authorities consider drones a menace because they could damage a plane in flight or be sucked into a plane’s engine, causing a deadly crash.
After the shutdown extended into Thursday, increased military protection was brought in to watch for more drones while planes resumed taking off and landing at Britain’s second-busiest airport.
The Government has kept the details of the security operation secret, but the military equipment is thought to offer better tracking capabilities and give authorities early warning if drones approach Gatwick, located 45 kilometres south of London.
At the airport on Sunday, flight arrival and departure boards showed fewer delays than on Saturday.
Additional tracking gear at the periphery of the runway and an increased police presence were the only clear signs of the headaches experienced there in the past four days.
But officials have stepped up surveillance of the surrounding airspace behind-the-scenes.
British Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has said the unspecified “military measures” have bolstered confidence that the airport will be able to remain open without further interruptions. But Mr Grayling noted anti-drone technology was a relatively new, imperfect field.
It is not clear how officials will respond if another drone gets too close. The best guide may be what happened on Friday night, when the airport was shut down for 70 minutes after a drone was spotted.
The military deployment allowed the airport to reopen relatively quickly, authorities have said.
No confirmed drone incursions have taken place since then.
Police raided a house in Crawley, near the airport, before the arrest on Friday night. (Sussex Police)
The crisis at Gatwick marked the first time drones caused sustained disruption at a major airport.
There is not much data on the dangers drones pose to airplanes because they are a relatively new phenomenon.
Police said the motive for the drone incursion was not yet known but they did not believe it was “terror-related”.
Gatwick Airport, which handles roughly 43 million passengers per year, has offered a 50,000-pound ($63,000) reward through Crime Stoppers for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the drone operators.