The run-up to Christmas 2018 saw hundreds of flights grounded at the UK’s second largest airport due to drones being spotted over the airfield. The extended closure of London Gatwick Airport comes on the back of numerous industry warnings on drone misuse. The events at Gatwick demonstrate that readily accessible and relatively inexpensive technology can cause serious disruption to global transport infrastructure.
The term “drone” in this context refers to remote-controlled aerial vehicles used by hobbyists and photographers. Whilst small, they could have potentially fatal consequences should they collide with an airliner as the drone could get sucked into a jet engine causing significant damage or shatter the cockpit windscreen. In October 2017, a drone collided with an airliner in Canada striking one of the plane’s wings. Fortunately, only minor damage was caused and the plane was able to land safely.
In May 2018, the UK government introduced new penalties for drone operators flying near airports and now require that all drone operators with drones over 250kg register with the Civil Aviation Authority. Within a few months, Peterborough Magistrate’s Court found a drone operator guilty on two charges for recklessly flying his drone beneath a police helicopter. Then in July 2018, the UK introduced new legislation making it illegal to fly a drone within 1km of an airport and to fly a drone higher than 120m.
However, this new legislation and associated penalties will do nothing to deter those with malicious intent as was the case with Gatwick. Industry commentators agree that current regulatory measures do not go far enough to deter drone misuse. As commercial drone operations such as Amazon’s drone delivery programme gains momentum, drone regulation around the globe continues to be challenging as governments balance national security with innovation.
The events of Gatwick have emphasised the need for airports to implement defensive measures to protect against future drone incidents. In the days following the closure, Gatwick Airport has spent £5m implementing drone defences. Numerous companies have emerged offering jamming and perimeter monitoring technology. However, should a drone be detected, shooting it down may not be an option as a falling drone poses a threat to the general public. Instead, increasingly novel technologies are emerging to thwart rogue drones. Several companies have demonstrated using drones with nets to capture rogue drones. Other companies have demoed anti-drone lasers.
With the rate of near misses between drones and commercial aircraft tripling from 29 in 2015 to 92 in 2017 according to monitoring body the UK Airprox Board, it is imperative that airports, regulators, insurers and law enforcement work together to combat drone misuse.