From 9 pm to 3 am on Wednesday evening Gatwick Airport, Europe’s 8th busiest was shut down due to the presence of two rogue drones flying over its runway.
The drones reappeared on Thursday morning, affecting the flight plans of over 120.000 passengers according to Gatwick’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe and forcing flights to divert to airports as far away as Paris and Amsterdam.
Flights finally resumed on Friday morning under heavy police and military guard.
Theories that the drone intrusion was a deliberate act to disrupt air traffic at a particularly stressful time – the end of year travel season – have already begun making their rounds, with British authorities launching an official investigation.
But, whatever the motives of the pilots may have been, the incident illustrated just how easy it is to bring a major air hub to its knees with a cheap, easy to purchase hobby drone.
Extremely Dangerous to Aircraft
But how can such a small device cause such big trouble?
Hobby drones are tiny but pose an enormous collision risk to aircraft which could catastrophically weaken the structural integrity of the impacted aircraft. And unlike bird strikes, drones are not composed of organic material, but of plastic, metal and potentially explosive lithium batteries – significantly raising the risks.
Thus the message of Gatwick’s CEO Stewart Wingate to stranded passengers:
“We hope passengers appreciate that we must and will always prioritise their safety over everything else…until we are confident that the issue has been resolved it would clearly not be in the interests of passengers to do so [restart operations] as we could be jeopardising their safety.”
Indeed, allowing flights to continue with the presence of rogue drones in flight paths is a risk no sensible airport authority is willing to take.
Adding to the pain of airport administrators – shutdowns are incredibly expensive – a similar incident in Dubai in 2017 ended up costing as much as $1 million US per minute.
On Thursday about 20 police units were busy searching the perimeter of the airfield of the drone pilots, which to date have still not been located. All that mobilization spells big bills for taxpayers who are obliged to fund attempts – often futile – to track down drown pilots after the fact.
Even mid-priced drones, such as Parrot’s ANAFI, have maximum ranges of up to 4km or 2.5 miles – allowing a pilot to wreak havoc from a safe distance and make his getaway long before police can determine his location by sight alone.
Why not just shoot the drone out of the sky?
“Why not just break out the rifles, blow the drone out of the sky and be done with it?” you may ask. In Gatwick’s case, police were reluctant to do so out of fear that stray bullets could possibly damage aircraft or injure passengers and crew.
Drones are also incredibly fast (some going up to 225kph or 140mph) and difficult to target, even for the best sharpshooters.
Pilot Localization is Key
Lucas Le Bell, founder of CerbAir anti-drone solutions knows how dangerous a drone in a no-fly zone can be. CerbAir has extensive experience in anti-drone protection over international airports such as Paris’ Charles de Gaulle – Roissy International Airport.
“This is proof that stricter legislation is not enough to eliminate the threat hobby drones pose to aviation, even at major airports like Gatwick. If you want to stop this sort of incident, you need to find the people responsible and bring them to justice to discourage others from doing the same thing, which is why it’s so important to be able to locate the pilot.”
Radio-frequency based anti-drone detection systems like CerbAir’s are able to locate not only the drone but its remote control from the moment the remote is activated. This allows airport authorities to find and apprehend rogue drone pilots and neutralize the threat straight away without using ammunition or jamming which can be dangerous in a crowded urban environment.
Major airports around the world such take the Gatwick debacle as a warning.
Deployment of anti-drone detection, pilot localization, and drone neutralization should no longer be considered optional.
Indeed, Stewart Wingate recognized the need for action in his official statement, writing:
“These events obviously highlight a wider strategic challenge for aviation in this country which we need to address together with speed – the aviation industry, Government and all the other relevant authorities.”
In a world where one tiny drone is all it takes to ground dozens of jumbo jets, finding and making an example of irresponsible pilots is the only way forward.