Hundreds of thousands of airline passengers have had their travel plans thrown into chaos due to an unprecedented drone disruption in London’s Gatwick Airport.
The United Kingdom’s second-biggest airport closed down after multiple drones were spotted near the airport. Police are suggesting the event could be an attack rather than a hobby operator who didn’t know what they were doing, referring to the event as a “deliberate act.”
London’s Gatwick Airport has been closed since 9 p.m. on Wednesday, according to CNN. The airport briefly reopened Thursday morning, but shut 45 minutes later after further sightings. The airport has since confirmed that it expects its runway to be closed until at least 4PM on Thursday.
“Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears; when we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears,” Sussex Police Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw told the UK’s Press Association.
Why can’t police track down the rogue Gatwick drones?
It can be difficult to track down drone operators, who could theoretically be controlling the drone from far away, and even indoors, depending on the equipment. Officials said that 20 police units from two forces were searching for the drone operators.
Gatwick’s Chief Operating Officer said police did not want to shoot the drones down because of the risk from stray bullets.
U.K. police said the “devices used are of an industrial specification.” That likely indicates the drones aren’t something like a DJI Mavic that you can buy off the shelf for less than $1,000, but rather something that has more battery life and a broader range.
What is the impact of the Gatwick drone disruption on passengers and the airport?
An estimated 110,000 passengers on 760 flights were scheduled to depart and land at Gatwick on Thursday morning, according CNN. Instead, flights are being diverted to Manchester, Luton or Heathrow in the UK, and even to further locations including Paris and Amsterdam.
Financial losses have not yet been disclosed, but a drone disruption at the Dubai airport, cost an estimated $100K/minute in losses to the airport.
Passengers report being stranded at the airport, having to sleep in the airport amidst utter chaos.
“We’ve seen nothing on this scale before, although Manchester Airport did suspend all flights for a short time back in 2017 after a drone was seen,” said Former RAF fighter pilot and instructor Jon Parker, an airline pilot who regularly flies into Gatwick and runs drone training company Flyby Technology. “The usual practice is to suspend flights for half-an-hour which is the usual battery lifespan for drones, but it may be in the Gatwick case that whoever is responsible for this have had several batteries and have brought their drones back to the ground to put new batteries on them.”
What are the drone laws around flying near airports in the UK?
It is illegal to fly drones within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of an airport, and violators can face up to five years in prison. Drones up to 7 kilos are allowed to fly in other controlled airspace, but they must never be flown at more than 400ft high, must not be flown further than 500 meters from their operator, and the person operating a drone must “ensure it is not a danger to people, property, vehicles or vessels.”
What are the drone laws around flying near airports in the U.S.?
In the U.S., laws around flying drones near airports vary based on whether you are a commercial or hobby operator.
Hobby pilots must notify the airport operator and air traffic control tower to fly within 5 miles of an airport.
Commercial pilots must get permission from air traffic control to fly in controlled airspace (which includes the airspace surrounding major airports). The easiest way to get permission to fly near airports is through a relatively new program administered through the Federal Aviation Administration, called LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability).
The LAANC program allows drone operators to use an interface from private company providers that are hand-picked by the FAA, such as AirMap, Project Wing (an entity of X, formerly known as Google), Rockwell Collins and Skyward — to request approval to fly in restricted airspace. Operators then receive approval almost instantly.
That instantly speeds up the ability to legally fly in controlled airspace such as near airports — a cumbersome process that had required individual applications and took months.
Without that permission, flying drones in restricted airspace is illegal. Some manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to impose measures that prevent drones from flying in restricted airspace.
DJI uses geofencing — a software program that creates a virtual “fence” around a drone, preventing it from flying into certain areas. The geofencing limitations were broadly expanded in 2015 in response to the growing popularity of drones — and drone crashes (perhaps the most famous example of geofencing being implemented was in the aftermath of a drone that flew onto White House property and crashed. A subsequent, mandatory firmware update prevented drones from flying within a 15.5-mile radius of downtown Washington, D.C.
DJI does allow customers to get around the geofence by giving pilots the ability to request authorization to fly in sensitive areas through a streamlined application process, which typically allows them to receive a code unlocking their drone in less than 30 minutes.
Of course, those laws probably won’t do anything to deter someone with an intentionally nefarious agenda. DJI’s geofence typically prevents hobbyists from taking off in places they didn’t realize were dangerous, but someone with an intent to disrupt Gatwick airport can easily skirt DJI’s geofence, assuming they are assuming a DJI drone to begin with.
Other companies are working to build technologies that attempt to prevent the incident such as Gatwick’s. San Francisco startup Dedrone has technology that is able to alert an airport when a drone enters protected airspace. If an airport is able to use this data, they can identify when the drone threat arrives, gain forensic data about the drone, and use Dedrone technology to follow the drone’s flightpath, theoretically allowing it to locate and apprehend the pilot. Drone detection technology provides situational awareness of the lower airspace and gives airports and opportunity to get ahead of the threat, before it causes harm or disrupts operations.
In the U.S., the FAA has done testing to evaluate technologies that could be used to detect drones in and around airports.
A recent test at Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW) Airport used radar, radio frequency and electro-optical systems, made by a company called Gryphon Sensors. The FAA eventually intends to develop minimum performance standards for any UAS detection technology that may be deployed in or around U.S. airports.