Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 28 January 2020

Gatwick chaos: What went wrong?

The drone incursion is not the first time Gatwick has been affected

All packed up with nowhere to go at London's Gatwick airport. AFP
All packed up with nowhere to go at London's Gatwick airport. AFP

Should Gatwick have been better prepared?

They had been warned: In July 2017, a drone caused the closure of the runway at Gatwick for only 14 minutes, causing five flights to be diverted. The action resulted in a significant impact on airport operations – but nothing on the scale of this time around. A British government consultation is considering plans to strengthen air defences, but it has focused on reckless drone pilots or mistakes – rather than a deliberate attempt to cause chaos at a major international airport.

Who’s behind the attack?

The motive and identity of the drone pilot remained unclear on Friday. Police said they were following up on a “number of persons of interest” amid suggestions that a lone eco-warrior was behind the flights. The airport has sparked local anger after recently announcing plans to expand its capacity without the need for rebuilding. The government has not ruled out hostile state activity, but says that is just speculation at the moment.

Why has it lasted so long?

Airport authorities said that shooting down a drone was not feasible because of the potential dangers of live-firing and bullets coming down as well as going up. Transport officials have estimated that some 126,000 people live within one kilometre of the airport boundaries at four major airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester. Officials have been frantically seeking alternatives as drones disappeared only to reappear when there was a prospect of flights restarting.

So what has changed?

Authorities have declined to comment on why they have reversed their plans but it was clear that public anger was mounting over the ability of one or a small number of people to disrupt what is one of the biggest travelling weekends of the year. After drafting in the military and specialist firearms units, shooting down a drone was now potentially an option, said police. When asked directly what had changed, the airport’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroffe, said that additional security measures had given him the confidence to allow flights to start again but declined to specify. The UK bought an Israeli-developed anti-drone system earlier this year to jam signals to a drone, according to Janes Defence Weekly.

What are the options for stopping drones?

The issue of how to tackle rogue drones has been a hot topic at aircraft and security conferences in recent years. Mr Woodroffe said on Friday there was no commercial solution for airports to tackle the problem and the government said that technology is only just appearing. In the UK from July, drones were banned from flying within a kilometre of airports or above 120 metres and the government was considering strengthening those measures. The punishment for doing so is up to five years in prison. The UAE said last year that any imported drone would have to be fitted with a “geo-fencing” chip that would prevent it from flying close to airports. Other options include a drone armed with weighted nets that are used to stop and capture rogue machines. A US-based company behind such a project said Friday its systems had been used for baseball matches in the US and for a marathon in California. Police forces have also examined the possibility of training eagles to tackle drones.

Updated: December 21, 2018 03:14 PM