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What The Gatwick Drones Say About The Future of Airport Security

February 21, 2019 by Sam Holland

From the 19th to the 21st of December 2018, hundreds of flights were cancelled due to malicious drone activity disrupting the airspace of Britain’s second busiest airport, London Gatwick—just in time for Christmas! Here are the lessons learned, and the lessons that at least should be learned, for present and future airport security.

Let’s discuss London Gatwick’s (LGW) drone chaos in sections: ‘Recapping What Happened’, before moving on to ‘The Implications’ and, ultimately, ‘What Has Been Learned For The Future’.

Recapping What Happened

The first of many drone sightings took place on the evening of Wednesday, 19th December in LGW’s airspace At 9pm, the airport’s runway was closed and the myriad of delays and diversions that followed marked day 1 of disruption for the affected passengers and airlines alike.

Following numerous sightings, one last witnessed drone was reported on Friday the 21st, the end of which date marked a 3-day-long ordeal that saw the cancellation of around 1,000 flights, and a rough total of 140,000 passengers who had been affected in the run-up to Christmas.

Although no one was physically hurt, speculations that the matter was an act of terrorism, economic or otherwise, naturally arose; and the police, later alongside the military, intervened. But all the while, the way the emergency was handled by the authorities was considered by many a shambolic attempt to stop a disastrous crime, one that so many average consumers could have afforded to commit and that could and should have had been prevented by the necessary precautions, particularly geofencing, in the first place.

Image courtesy of Bigstock.

As will be discussed throughout this article, the matter was more complicated than much of the public’s perception of it. For instance, geofencing is neither a sure-fire preventive measure nor a universal requirement for drones.

But at any rate, the issue led to a lot of finger-pointing and millions of pounds’ worth of wasted money and, sadly, in the middle of all the chaos, a couple were even wrongfully arrested.

So after an apology from police and the admission that the real perpetrator(s) remained (and still are) very much at large, the bright side was that, alongside the police’s intervention, the government and military’s unspecified 'mitigating measures' convinced LGW’s COO Chris Woodroofe to reopen the airport—just four days before Christmas.

But what does all this drone chaos tell us?

The Implications

As is the case with so many complaints made in hindsight about an emergency, the gripes people had with the so-called 'dronegate' boiled down to both/either: how to prevent the issue happening in the first place; and/or, they discussed how it could, and should, have been fixed. In other words, they amounted to public questions of prevention or cure, or, of course, a combination of the two).

Both sides of the preventive/curative coin are shown respectively in the below two quotes from a couple of members of the public—found on the Telegraph's Opinion Letters section—whose views reflected much of the population’s:

“The police (or the army) have sharpshooters ... who could bring down a drone with one shot. I can certainly think of a few clay pigeon shooters who could achieve it.”

“Surely [geofencing] technology could be incorporated into all drones in Britain and worldwide.”

Image courtesy of Bigstock.

To address the former complaint first, the problem with many of the public’s suggestions of using curative measures, in this case, is that they tend to fall into the trap of asking why the authorities couldn’t just blow the invading UAVs out of the sky. The answer is simply that it was deemed neither safe nor practical, as per the points below, for LGW to see a game of drone target practice.

To break the reasons for this down:

  • The safety limitations involved: while some drones return to their pilot when they’re ‘in a spin’, many do not. This means there may have been even less chance that the would-be decommissioned UAVs could have met the ground safely—a critical problem for any people and property surrounding LGW’s perimeter. And even if the stray drones were to all land safely, there’s no saying that the same luck would apply to any stray bullets fired!
  • The practical limitations involved: even if a shoot-on-sight approach was in fact safe, the height and speed at which the targets moved made them too hard to detect anyway. In fact, the confirmation that the objects were indeed drones was only possible thanks to the more reliable eyewitness accounts, such as those of pilots and other staff, who also reported numerous sightings.

Reflective of these limitations, the geofencing precautions that are meant to protect LGW were not only unable to stop the UAVs from penetrating all of the airport’s ‘invisible barriers’, but there also wasn’t the viable technology in place to detect and flush the drones out after the fact.

But why? And what have Gatwick airport’s executives learned since?

What Has Been Learned For The Future

The points above not only mark the said importance—and sadly the limitations—of implementing improved precautions in anti-drone aerospace, it’s by showing that such preventive measures aren’t enough that they also underscore how much curative measures need to take to the fore, too.

To elaborate, consider again the common public complaint that geofencing “technology [should] be incorporated into all drones in Britain and worldwide”. The point to remember here is that while there always has been some aerial infrastructure to protect London Gatwick (and other no-fly zones) from consumer drones, such an obstacle applies to the more legitimate and/or professional consumer (nicknamed ‘prosumer’) drones: the expensive, software-centric UAVs whose embedded GPS functionalities make them more responsive to airspace restrictions.

Image courtesy of Bigstock.

The fact that the geofencing for LGW didn’t work during 2018’s drone chaos, however, suggests that the UAVs may have been more comparable to the average consumer-grade devices—but with a twist, suggests long-time drone expert Andy Wills.

They may have started life as basic consumer drones that were then modified for foul play or could have even been home-made from scratch. Either way, this would help explain how their batteries kept them in the air for so much longer than the run-of-the-mill 15 to 20 minutes’ flight time found in their typical counterparts.

Aside from such implications of malicious intent, the drone chaos was, of course, a result of crime in other respects, too. By simply being within 1km of an airport, regardless of which one, the drone pilot(s) was/were committing a criminal offence, and all the while, the incident took place just before the UK’s most profitable and religious holiday of the year—meaning the disruption could have been economically and/or religiously-motivated.

If we are to assume the former motivation applied, it is now easy to see at least the possibility of an act of financial terrorism, in which case the seriousness should never be discounted as a ‘one-off’. In fact, malicious drone use, of increasing severity, is becoming an issue that has led to questions of whether UAVs mark the future of terrorism.

But if malicious drone use does show the potential for the future of terrorism, at least Gatwick’s Christmas chaos has inspired a future of anti-terrorism, too.

After all, following the said limited precautions in place prior to the 19th of December, 2018, LGW executives have now invested around £5m into both preventive and curative anti-drone measures, and airport hoverbikes are just one example of the high-tech possibilities for the latter.

Image courtesy of Bigstock.

And that’s only for if or when the already-tightening precautions against malicious drone use fail: the UK government have already introduced new legislation for UAV consumers, meaning you now cannot fly a drone within 5km of an airport. Plus, by the 20th of November this year, buyers of UAVs between 250g and 20kg will need to carry out a piloting competency test, due to the damages possible from the more bulky devices.

All in all, perhaps UAVs will, in fact, one day be the ‘new IEDs’, which is needless to say a worrying notion, given the increasingly easy access to the former. And it means that drone manufacturers, airports, and consumers alike have to respect both the present and future of airspace safety measures.

But at least London Gatwick airport’s damages over Christmas were limited to damages to financial aspects, and understandably, much of the UK's morale. While the drone chaos could have been even worse, it is cautionary tales such as this one that evidently provoke a safer future for aerospace.

With such a new generation of threats to national security now a reality, the very trading and manufacturing of, and legislation surrounding, consumer UAVs have already thankfully been reconsidered.

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