How were drones able to close Gatwick Airport?
Drones have forced Britain’s second-busiest airport to shut its runway, sparking chaos and delaying thousands of Christmas travellers.
Planes were unable to depart after the drones were spotted, while a number of flights scheduled to land were diverted to other airports, Gatwick Airport said in a statement.
But how are these small aircraft able to cause so much trouble? Here’s what we know about what’s going on.
Is this really such a big deal?
Gatwick’s runway will remain closed and all flights are cancelled for the rest of the evening because of continued drone sightings in and around the airfield as we continue to work with police and security partners to resolve the situation
If you’re a passenger trying to get away for the holiday, it’s a huge deal. But it’s not just limited to those trying to catch a flight.
Gatwick Airport’s chief operating officer said this was a “very significant national issue”.
“We have the military on site, we have the police on site and we are all working very hard to bring this drone down,” he said.
After 24 hours, the drones are still disrupting services. Gatwick Airport has cancelled flights for the rest of today and is not expected to open for another several hours.
Even when it does re-open, the backlog and disruptions are expected to last for days.
This isn’t a case of authorities being overzealous either.
Rules for flying drones in Australia
- No flying more than 120 metres above the ground
- No flying over or near an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are underway
- No flying within 30m of people
- If your drone weighs more than 100 grams you must keep your drone at least 5.5km away from controlled aerodromes
- No flying at night
- Your drone must stay within your line of sight
- No flying over or above people e.g. at festivals, sporting ovals, populated beaches, parks, busy roads and footpaths
- Flying must not create a hazard to another aircraft, person, or property
- No flying in prohibited or restricted areas
- Local council and/or national park laws prohibit drone flights in certain areas
Jai Galliott is an expert in defence and military technology at the University of New South Wales and said even the smaller drones available to the public can cause an explosion if they’re sucked into a plane engine.
And the drone in this case isn’t small.
“So it’s pretty clear that this is a fairly large drone, not the classic plastic garden drone that you will see, this is a commercial-sized drone that is clearly being operated deliberately in a way that every time Gatwick tries to reopen the runway the drones reappear,” the UK’s Transport Secretary said.
“So this is quite clearly a deliberate act.”
Why has it been so hard to locate the drones?
Sussex Police Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said it appears the drones being used are “newer-generation”, which are bigger and have more range.
Superintendent Burtenshaw said each time police believed they were getting close to the drone operator, “the drone disappears”.
“[Then] when we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears,” he said.
Basically, it’s made it harder for police to locate the person controlling the device, because they’re likely a lot further away from the airport than you think.
Dr Galliott said he could walk into a large electronics retailer in Australia today and buy a drone with a range of up to 5 kilometres for less than $2,000.
“And if you’re a tech-savvy person, you can figure out how to extend the range of that kind of equipment,” he said.
It’s possible to set up a surveillance perimeter of high-quality cameras to track the drone, according to Dr Galliott, but drones can fly higher than cameras can see.
“You could probably track up to 1 kilometre into the sky. But any more than that and it’s becoming like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he said.
So why don’t they have drone-blocking technology?
It exists, but it’s a long way from perfect.
Here’s Dr Galliott:
“There are things called drone guns, which are ultrasonic-type devices that utilise certain segments of the electromagnetic spectrum to target the kind of frequencies on which these drones operate,” he said.
“It’s a more targeted device that you would aim at a particular drone.”
Remember though, police are having trouble finding the drone, so this tech isn’t super helpful until they do.
Dr Galliott said there are devices that disrupt a broad range of frequencies, but they have their issues too.
“The problem is a lot of the drones these days are becoming more automated and as such they don’t necessarily rely on communication with an operator,” he said.
“Certain functions have been programmed in and they carry it out autonomously.”
It’s also relatively new technology.
“It’s not that they cause a huge issue, but that they haven’t been tested in those kind of environments,” Dr Galliott said.
Think of how long it took for it to be OK to use your mobile phone on a plane. Dr Galliott said there are still big hurdles to clear before the broad jamming technology is given the all-clear for use.
Why can’t they just shoot down the drones?
About 20 police units from two forces tried to zero in on the drone operator after the first sighting over Gatwick on Wednesday evening.
Police initially told airport officials it was too risky to try to shoot down the two drones, since stray bullets might kill someone.
But given the scale of the disruption, they’re now reconsidering, according to the BBC.
“The assessment earlier on today was that we wouldn’t be using firearms,” Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said.
“This is continually reviewed so you will know and have seen that we have firearm officers deployed.”
So there just isn’t a foolproof solution?
Here’s Dr Galliott again:
“The problem is there is no bulletproof way to guard against drone attacks of this nature.
“Airports have been aware of this risk for quite some time. Airports pay significant sums of money to security consultants who are also aware of these risks.
“It’s one of those cases where the genie is out of the bottle and it’s impossible to put the cap back on.”