Gatwick Airport Drone Incident, December 2018

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The Gatwick Airport drone incident occurred on the evening of December 19th, 2018, when Gatwick’s only runway was closed for safety reasons after what appeared to be a drone was spotted flying over it several times. Inbound flights were diverted to other airports in the UK or northern Europe while outbound flights were cancelled.

2023 update. Gatwick Airport was closed again in May 2023 after a pilot reported seeing a drone. Several flights were diverted and the airport reopened at 14:35 on May 14th.

Although the runway was closed the airport itself remained open since no one was sure when flights would resume. The runway was reopened at about 3 am the following morning but quickly shut again when the object reappeared.

After several more sightings, the runway remained closed throughout Thursday 20th, during which time the RAF was called to assist the Police in their search for the drone pilot.

There was another sighting of the drone at about 10 pm on Thursday 20th. By the morning of Friday, December 21st no further sightings had been reported, the runway reopened, and flights in and out resumed.

There were reports of another sighting on the evening of Friday 21st December and flights were diverted again. But subsequently, they resumed and it emerged that Sussex Police had arrested a man and a woman in connection with the  “criminal use of drones”.

It was said that the Israeli-developed Drone Dome system had been deployed and that this presumably enabled swift reaction and subsequent arrests. This caused huge disruption and upset tens of thousands of passengers and their children.

And inevitably it had a big impact on all those who have a business interest in aviation, not just the airlines but all the ancillary services too. About 1,000 flights were cancelled or diverted on one of the busiest weeks of the year, affecting 140,000 passengers. While the incident was ongoing there was so much speculation in the press and social media that any facts were hard to find.

Yet, despite all the efforts of the authorities the perpetrator(s) evaded capture and no one was sure who was flying the drone(s) and why. As the hours passed speculation was rife on social media with people suggesting it was all due to a prank by a teenager and that the drone was the affordable type of Christmas toy that could be bought on any high street.

Hoax? Error? What?

The Gatwick Drone Incident remains unexplained and what happened is now anyone’s guess. There is yet to be a satisfactory explanation for it.

A couple who were arrested after the incident were held and questioned for 36 hours and then released without charge. They were given a hard time of it in the press with several personal photos published and a lot of intrusive speculation about them.

Sussex Police apologised to Paul and Elaine Gait after it emerged they did not possess any drones and had been at work during the reported sightings

Source: BBC

Then, a statement from police about the ongoing investigation contained several points about their lines of enquiry, but the one that was seized upon was the suggestion that there may not have been any drones at all. A damaged drone has been found near the airport’s perimeter but that was later ruled out of the enquiry.

The police later said they were examining information relating to “persons of interest”. They didn’t rule out the risk that the incident, whatever it was, may happen again. They continued to interview the sixty-seven eyewitnesses who reported sightings.

Gatwick Airport Drone Incident Theories

A few days later, to stoke the fires of conspiracy theories even further, Birmingham airport was closed for two hours due to what was described as a ‘failure of the electronic flight plan system.’

So Christmas week 2018 began with several theories buzzing around like drones gone wrong.

  1. It was a deliberate act one or more drone users and the perpetrators are still at large e.g eco-activists or other anti-aviation actors.
  2. It was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the Government to distract us from the Brexit negotiations/shambles.
  3. It was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the Government to test the impact on aviation of a no-deal Brexit.
  4. It was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the Government to justify new, strict anti-drone legislation.
  5. It was an incident of mass hysteria during which about 60 people reported sightings of something that wasn’t there at all.
  6. It was a mistaken identity and 60 people saw something like a light on a crane or a similar mundane object.
  7. It was a UFO from either another country, planet, or dimension.

One thing we can be certain of is the fact that so far, whatever the truth may be, the overall impression this has created around the world of Britain’s response to such incidents left a lot to be desired. It may yet transpire that there were good reasons for this mess but at the time re responses from those involved exasperated the public.

Without any answers, we seemed inept as a nation to explain something that could happen again at any time and which could bring one of our main transport hubs to a standstill.

One thing you can say about this affair is the fact that it brought drone defence systems into sharp focus, and according to some conspiracy theorists, that was the plan all along.

Sensitive Areas

Rogue drones near airports or drones flying into restricted airpspace are thankfully rare, but anyone with the technical knowledge can override any built-in safety features and fly a drone anywhere they wish.

Drone enthusiasts are mostly consicentious and unlikely to have a reason to do so. The vast majority adhere to any no fly zone close to wherever they may be flying.

However, the installation of an anti drone system in an area that is sensitive to illegal drone flying is a perfectly reasonable response in orde to mitigate the risk of drone attacks.

Drone Defence Systems

DJI Innovations, arguably the biggest drone manufacturer in the world, have been developing drones since they released the DJI Phantom several years ago. DJI created the No-Fly Zones for its drones in 2013 and has been developing this feature ever since.

Their geofencing Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) software is now much more sophisticated, with enhanced features for airports and secure areas.

The DJI AeroScope, seen deployed at Gatwick, is a drone detection platform designed for use at sensitive sites. It can detect drones within a 50 km radius. So the geonfencing technology does exist but as we all know, those with criminal or malicious intent will find a way to circumvent safeguards and they are not deterred by laws and regulations.

Speculation that this was an act of terrorism seemed less likely as time went on. Terrorists, by definition, aim to cause terror, usually by randomly killing people and blowing things up, but there had been no deaths or injuries, and no destruction.

On Thursday December 20 2018 a BBC journalist speaking on Radio 2 suggested that it might be the work of an environmental protester or group. This was the most plausible suggestion to date as the actions have all the hallmarks of activists who have a track record of causing massive disruption at airports. Perhaps then this was the work of people who regard themselves as an anti-aviation activists, determined to make a point at any cost.

This was a sophisticated attack that must have involved knowledge of drones, drone software, and drone piloting over extended periods. There is also the point that the pilots managed to evade capture for two days despite the best efforts of the Police and the Army.

Airports & Drones

This was a watershed moment for the aviation industry. It exposed the vulnerability of airports and their lack of defence against those with malicious or criminal intent who are willing and able to fly drones into the flight paths of civilian aircraft.

Since the law is not a deterrent and geofencing software within drones is not mandatory or can be hacked or reprogrammed, it must be the airports who regain control. They need defence systems of their own to protect themselves from any incursion, malicious or accidental.

Whether the drone is flown by an elusive eco-activist or it’s an out of control UAV carried on the wind, it should be possible to bring it down quickly and safely. Airports, power stations, prisons, and military sites must be equipped with Drone Dome, DJI AeroScope, or other drone defence systems.

This event will have several outcomes one of which might be the fact that it may embolden those who admire the perpetrators to carry out similar stunts at any airport globally. Whatever countermeasures are chosen they won’t come soon enough.

Epilogue to the Gatwick Incident

In June 2021 the BBC reported that the couple who had been wrongly arrested over the incident had received a £200,000 settlement for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment.

The police report into the incident was never published.

Conservative MP Henry Smith, whose constituency includes Gatwick Airport, speculated that Sussex Police were “embarrassed” about what the report contains. Sussex police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne said the report includes “significant detail which should not be published for reasons of national and operational security”.

Source: BBC

Couple wrongly arrested over Gatwick drone chaos condemn Sussex Police of a cover-up over failure to publish report into the incident three years on

Daily Mail, June 25 2021

A drone sighting caused the airport to close for two days in 2018, but despite a lengthy police investigation, no culprit was ever found. So what exactly did people see in the Sussex sky?

The Guardian December 1 2020

Read how Leonardo’s ‘Falcon Shield’ counter-drone system played a major role in the re-opening of Gatwick airport before Christmas 2018., March 4 2019

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