Gatwick drone disruption deemed ‘deliberate,’ new powers given to police

Opinion: £100 penalty notices might not be enough to deter those who find causing airport chaos amusing.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Traveling during the festive period is often chaotic in nature. Combine poor weather and heavy passenger volumes and you will often find harried staff, overloaded systems, and delays at airports and train stations in the United Kingdom.

It only take a few snowflakes to fall in the country for many transport services to come to a grinding halt; we don't have either the infrastructure or equipment necessary to tackle disruptive weather (the argument being that such events only happen for a few days, so what is the point?)

However, Gatwick's repeated closures on the run-up to Christmas have highlighted another potential future problem for travelers: drones.

Between 19 and 21 December 2018, passengers were bounced from pillar to post, unsure of their fate, as drone sightings forced runways to close and prevented flights from taking off.

Researchers from the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) have simulated how a drone, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), look when they collide with commercial airplanes.

The sight is not pretty. While you may expect a tiny drone in the face of a jumbo jet to be obliterated on impact, the researchers found that such a collision can result in damage to primary structural elements of a wing.

If drones can be as debilitating as bird strikes, then, it is no surprise that carriers must ground their flights if drones are fluttering about.

The consequences at Gatwick were serious. Roughly 1,000 flights were affected, the airport would have suffered severe financial consequences, and thousands of passengers were left with a coin-toss: wait and see, or travel elsewhere.

Some passengers took their chances, others booked themselves -- where possible -- on flights at other airports, and others were diverted to landing strips in different parts of the country. In a few cases I know of, a flight from Europe reached Gatwick, circled, and went back to its original airport, and a friend due to land in Gatwick was diverted up north; resulting in the need to take a coach and travel a further six hours to pick up their car.

I usually fly Gatwick and out of chance, this time, flew from London Heathrow. The flight in question was relatively empty a day before and suddenly became packed as other passengers abandoned their plans at Gatwick and raced to Heathrow in a bid to reach their destination before Christmas.

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All of this, not to mention the raft of compensation claims that will hit carriers (likely to plead circumstances outside of their control) was caused by what appears to be a single drone.

No arrests have been made for the disruption, which the UK's transport secretary Chris Grayling called "deliberate, irresponsible and calculated."

As reported by The Guardian, law enforcement will now be given new powers to deal with the problem, which will also affect wider drone ownership in the UK.

From 30 November, owners of drones between 250g and 20kg will need to register and take a drone competency test.

Law enforcement will be given the right to land, seize, and search drones -- as and when they can catch operators -- and fixed penalties of £100 ($130) can be issued in these cases if operators fail to land their devices on order, or fail to register.

The government says that it is 'taking action,' but penalty notices will, frankly, do nothing. We don't have enough bodies on the force to combat burglary and theft at present, so the idea of police officers being available to watch out for unruly drone operators is laughable.

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The only option, therefore, is automated. The Home Office intends to test anti-drone technology at airports and prisons, with an extension added to exclusion zones representing a three-mile radius.

It is not known exactly what technology has been purchased to counter drones, but it is believed to be military-grade signal jammers from Israel, Drone Dome, which have been deployed.

Let's hope the UK government does not use the Gatwick incident as an excuse to suffocate drone ownership as a hobby which has now bloomed into everything from a competitive sport to a valuable tool for photographers.

However, when it comes to using technological counter-drone measures to protect airports, there doesn't seem to be another way forward, with so much at stake. 

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