Frances Everett, BA International Relations and Development Studies
In late December the appearance of drones on London Gatwick Airport’s runways halted flights and caused disruption for tens of thousands of people.
The drones were spotted around 21:00 on 19 December and were flown around the airfield multiple times. The police are therefore describing the act as a purposeful attempt to cause disruption to flights.
Gatwick Airport grounded all flights due to fear of collisions with the drones. It reopened almost 36 hours later on the Friday morning, although flights were again disrupted that evening for a brief period after a further drone sighting.
An industry figure commented that “the malicious intent is something that people were aware of, but I don’t think we thought it would happen on that scale at this stage.”
A man and a woman were arrested in their Crawley home amid claims of suspicious sightings but were later released without charge.
More than 130,000 passengers were left stranded or delayed at London Gatwick as a result of the rogue drones, some even camping overnight in the hope that the airport would soon reopen. The army was called in to help with the chaos and Gatwick Airport offered a £50,000 reward to catch those responsible. A spokesperson for Gatwick stated that early estimates suggest a loss of revenue for the airport and airlines being up to £20 million as a result of the incident.
Further problems ensued even after the initial chaos, as Heathrow also grounded flights less than three weeks later after reported sightings of drones.
The situation has prompted many to ask why it is so easy to bring a whole airport to a halt with a drone, and how airports can protect themselves from these kinds of attacks. Drones were already banned from flying within 1km of an airport, and this will soon be extended to 5km by the government. But this is not enough as drones are untraceable, widely available, and can realistically be flown anywhere.
Specialist equipment is required to protect runways from such drone attacks. Heathrow Airport was criticised for only buying anti-drone equipment after the Gatwick incident had already happened, suggesting an underestimation of the threat they pose. Although they are set to install the Royal Air Force anti-drone system, this cannot stop the threat of small commercial drones which can’t be picked up by airport radars. One European defence official has pointed out that the American military uses more than 20 different systems in order to counter battlefield drone strikes, commenting that “the reason they have so many is that not one works on its own”.
“Some believe aliens to be behind all of this”
As for the culprits, there have been varying suggestions of who could have been behind the attack, and what their intentions may be. Some have suggested that it was an ‘eco-terrorist’ carrying out direct action against the aviation industry, as the Telegraph reported that the police were looking into this lead, although no such groups have claimed responsibility for the drones.
Some believe aliens to be behind all of this, as YouTube user ‘Conspiracy Stoner’ captured footage of a UFO above Heathrow airport during the disruption which showed bright flashing lights: lights which are claimed by the website ‘UFO Sightings Daily’ to be too large to be a drone.
Regardless of who caused this particular chaos, the likelihood is that it will happen again. This means that the clock is ticking for government and the aviation industry to prepare airports for future malicious drone activity.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons