Police warn new drone owners to obey law after disruption at UK's Gatwick Airport

Friday, December 28, 2018

Police on Tuesday warned new owners of drones to obey the law after Gatwick Airport, the second-largest airport in Britain, faced days of closure on account of drone sightings. About 150,000 travellers have had their plans affected. Two suspects were arrested but later released without charge.

File image of a drone
Image: ZullyC3P.

Airport authorities closed the facility's single runway on December 19. The airport briefly reopened two days later, on Friday, but was shut down again after renewed drone activity. In total the airport, which serves London, was not able to operate normally for about 36 hours.

Over the three days, people reported seeing drones fly over the airport 67 times but, according to Sussex Police Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley as of Monday, there was no video of any drone activity and "always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place", though the police generally referred to the sightings as credible and were examining a downed drone found not far from the airport.

"Before anyone uses a drone it is vital that they make themselves aware of their responsibilities and the rules to make sure these devices are operated in a safe and responsible way" said Deputy Chief Constable Serena Kennedy, a national lead on drone policing. The law on drone misuse was tightened in July and presently provides for fines and up to five years in prison. She continued "Police officers will use all available powers to investigate reports of drones being misused and seek the appropriate penalty".

Police officers will use all available powers to investigate reports of drones being misused and seek the appropriate penalty

—DCC Serena Kennedy

The law prevents drone use above 400ft and within a kilometre of airports. UK rules planned for late next year mandate registration of any drone above 250g (about 9oz) and the taking of an online safety exam before piloting them.

Airport authorities grounded all planes in the airport, and diverted the planes meant to arrive at Gatwick to other airports in England or even other countries, such as London Heathrow, Luton, Birmingham, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Manchester, Dublin in Ireland, Glasgow in Scotland, and Paris in France.

Gatwick Airport authorities instructed travellers to check how their flights had been affected before coming to the airport. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said since this is an "extraordinary circumstance", travellers may not be owed money by the airline they were travelling with.

The British army was called in during the incident. Police said there was no reason to think the incident was terrorism, but was probably a deliberate attempt to disrupt the airport.

Couple Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk were arrested on Friday and named in several newspapers, before being cleared by police and released without charge. They said on Monday they feel "completely violated" by the incident and its press coverage. In light of a landmark legal ruling earlier this year, libel lawyer Mark Stephens of media law specialists Howard Kennedy said they were likely in line for a payout of £75,000 to £125,000 if they chose to take any publishers to court.

Hacked Off, a campaign group seeking media reform, was also critical of the media outlets that named the couple. Trevor Kavanagh, former politics editor at The Sun, defended that paper's decision to release their names, on the basis press attention had hastened the police's identification of a "cast-iron, watertight alibi" proving their innocence. TV personality Piers Morgan apologised for claiming Gait and Kirk were "terrorists".

Planes can sustain significant damage from collisions with drones. The Guardian recently outlined a few possible ways to stop drones from entering restricted areas, such as blocking the radio signals. This was used in English prisons in an attempt to stop drugs from being smuggled in via drones. However, in an airport, this could also stop important signals getting through. Training eagles to take down drones has also been attempted by the Dutch police. Another possible method is firing nets at the drones.

File photo of aircraft at Gatwick, with the control tower in the foreground.
Image: Andy Potter via the Geograph project.

According to The Guardian, most drones can fly for roughly half an hour. The drone sightings at Gatwick continued for hours. The Guardian speculated there might have been multiple drones involved or an operator changing out the battery packs to allow the drone or drones to relaunch quickly. However, the packs take time to recharge, so it would take a large number of packs and effort to operate drones for so long, constantly.

According to The Guardian, despite this short flying time, most drones' range is mainly limited by signal strength. Some drones are able to fly up to five miles away from the controller. With a big enough budget, drone range is nearly unlimited.

Gatwick airport's CEO said that he is sorry about the disruption, but must keep the travellers' safety as the most important thing. He claimed he was working with the police and government to resolve this problem. He said the incident highlighted a weak area in British aviation and drones should not be able to do this much damage.

Prime Minister Theresa May said she "feels for all those passengers" affected. Britain's transport secretary said that this was an "entirely new kind of threat".

Gatwick Airport offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the ongoing investigation. Crimestoppers chair Lord Ashcroft added another £10,000 to the sum.

Drone incidents are increasing in the UK, with the CAA reporting for the year until December 4, 120 incursions of drones into airspace close to other aircraft. This represents a roughly 30% increase from the previous year. 2014, by contrast, had less than ten such occasions. According to Farming UK on Monday, in an incident earlier this year a Tornado jet belonging to the Royal Air Force came within 22m (about 70ft) of an agricultural drone whilst flying at low altitude at over 500mph. The drone was at a 100m (about 330ft) altitude and the incident came to CAA attention after being reported by the farmer.

Also reported earlier this month, in August a Boeing 737 approaching Stansted Airport, which also serves London, came within 15m (about 50ft) of hitting a drone at a 10,000ft altitude. Gatwick, meanwhile, is not the only English airport to face disruption over the Christmas travel period. On Sunday Birmingham Airport closed for two hours due to malfunctioning air traffic control equipment.