Drone disruption

Thousands of passenger journeys have been disrupted by deliberate unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) flying in the vicinity of London Gatwick Airport, an act that has been devastatingly effective at halting flights.

It’s incredible that a Christmas toy has the power to suspend activities at the UK’s second biggest hub, but that’s what happened on the evening of Dec. 19.

In a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, the drones appeared just after 2100 local time. The airport was closed, but re-opened at 0300, only to close again after another sighting. At nearly 1600 on Dec. 20, the airport remains closed.

Police have described the disruption as a deliberate act. Operators could face up to five years in prison, under current UK rules.

Understandably, this incident has stirred up a lot of high emotion, especially with the timing being so close to Christmas.

Some Twitter users slammed Gatwick, saying it should have been better prepared. “Are you really not able to handle a situation like this within an hour to two? Surely you have planned for drones and can respond without simply closing the airport until further notice. If not, you should not be operating a London airport,” said one disgruntled Twitter user.

The fact is that this UAVs are a relatively new threat. As a safety-conscious industry, caution is the best approach. Yes, Gatwick could install systems to monitor for drones, but getting them out of the sky is another matter. Drone geofencing can be disabled by the operator. Technologies exist to jam drone communication links, but this is military-level equipment.

In the words of my Aviation Week colleague, Graham Warwick: “The underlying problem is we don’t know what damage a drone could do to an aircraft, so we ‘overreact.’ We don’t do that when we see birds at an airport, because we know what damage they can do. We need more research into the damage risks, so we can start to react in a measured way.”

Questions will definitely be asked in the aftermath of this incident. Gatwick may be the first to suffer an attack like this, but the risk of copycat incidents will be high, pushing UAVs further up the political agenda.

UK pilots’ union BALPA used the incident to demand tougher laws to keep drones clear of manned flights, by extending today’s 1km no-fly zone to 5km. BALPA also called for a drone registration process, so people flouting the law can be caught and prosecuted. However, if someone sets out to deliberately disrupt traffic at a major hub, it’s highly unlikely this would make a difference.

That’s the difficulty when only one side has to play by the rules.

Victoria Moores victoria.moores@informa.com