Gatwick Airport had to close its runway last Sunday due to a drone being spotted nearby. Although only closed for a total of 14 minutes, the incident causes major disruption resulting in flights being diverted.
Gatwick is one of London’s major airports. It is the world’s biggest single-runway airport with over 43 million people passing through and 280,000 aircraft movements in 2016.
In this post, I am going to look at what we know so far about the Gatwick Airport drone incident. Other reported drone ‘near misses’ with aircraft and what the consequences could be if a drone hits an aircraft. Also, what could be done to stop people flying drones near airports in the future.
NOTE: If you have a drone and fly it in the UK you should make sure you do it safely and legally. A good starting point the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) Drone Safe website and the Drone Code that is on there.
The Gatwick Airport Drone Incident
On Sunday around 6 pm, a drone was spotted twice near Gatwick Airport resulting in the closure of the runway. Although the sightings totalled 14 minutes they cause major disruption of airport operations.
Four EasyJet flights and one British Airways flight had to be diverted. Other flights were also kept in holding patterns.
The BBC reports the airport said:
“Runway operations at Gatwick were suspended between 18:10 BST and 18:19, and again from 18:36 to 18:41, resulting in a small number of go-arounds and diverts.”
“Operations have resumed and the police continue to investigate.”
Sussex Police are no stranger to drones. In fact, they have been using them for several years.
Drone ‘Near Misses’
Luckily, a drone has never hit an airliner in the UK. But they have the potential to bring down an aircraft. With reports of drones getting close to aircraft on the rise it is a real danger. In fact, aircraft getting too close to each other is an issue for all aviation and is known as an ‘airprox’.
In the UK the CAA and the Military Aviation Authority have set up the Airprox Board to investigate this sort of thing. Their primary objective is:
“…to enhance air safety in the UK, in particular in respect of lessons to be learned and applied from Airprox occurrences reported within UK airspace.”
They also give a definition of what they what an airprox is:
“An airprox is a situation in which, in the opinion of a pilot or air traffic services personnel, the distance between aircraft as well as their relative positions and speed have been such that the safety of the aircraft involved may have been compromised.”
The Gatwick Airport drone incident is not the only reported sighting of a drone near an aircraft. There have been many across the UK and more and more reports each year.
Also, if we look at data from Google Trends. We can see that the people are searching for drones more as the years go on. With spikes during the run-up to Christmas. So it looks like this sort of occurrence is going to become more frequent.
Other Gatwick Airport Drone Incidents
This not the first airprox incident at Gatwick, not event the first this year. The table below shows the airproxes that could be drones. As the ‘object’ is reported by the pilot in most cases we cannot tell definitvily if it is a drone or not.
The mapping of reported drone sightings
This is not the first time I have looked at the data from the Airprox Board. Last year I showed the data to Andy Dickinson of UCLan’s Media Innovation Studio.
He has mapped the airprox data for drones in 3D covering the whole UK. You can access the KML file he created, as well as the method he used to map the data in Google Earth here. The Evening Standard also did a similar thing for the 13 ‘near misses’ around London in 2016, but only in 2D.
What if the Drone had hit an Aircraft?
We do have something similar to a drone hitting an aircraft – birdstrikes. A birdstrike is when one (or more bird) hits and aircraft. This can be a major problem as they can bring an aircraft down.
Drones are not birds, they are harder. They also contain li-po batteries which can cause fires when damaged. So, even though aircraft take into account birdstrikes, a dronestrike would be worse.
What can be done?
How can we stop another Gatwick Airport drone incident from happening? Or the same thing at another airport. But still ensure people can use drones.
I think there are four main possible solutions: enforcing the current regulations, education, registration, and counter drone technologies.
Regulations & Enforcement
There are rules for operating drones. Both for hobby flyers and commercial ones. In fact, before you are allowed to make money with a drone there are several things you need to do:
- Undergo training from an approved provider, and:
- Pass a theory exam.
- Pass a flight exam.
- Write an operations manual.
- Get insurance
- Maintain a minimum number of flight hours with your drone.
The Civic Drone Center offers one of these courses. It is unlikely that the person flying is one from with approval from the CAA. They know better.
In the Air Navigation Order, there are two articles (94 and 95) which relate directly to drones. They set out the rules for anyone wishign to fly a drone. It is these on which the Drone Code is based on. However, in this case Articles 240 and 241 may be more important in this case. They say:
“Endangering safety of an aircraft240. A person must not recklessly or negligently act in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person in an aircraft.Endangering safety of any person or property241. A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property.“
The first one is obvious. However, not all people realise that drones are aircraft.
Having rules is fine, the problem is enforcing them. Is not easy for a drone pilot to be tracked down. We will have to wait and see what the police investigation brings up.
Educating people about safe drone use is easier said than done. But that doesn’t mean we must not try. Drone sold in the UK are meant to come with a leaflet on the CAA’s Drone Code. However, there is no way of telling if they get read. There is a similar leaflet in the proposed EU drone regulations.
The Drone Code developed by the CAA also put together this mnemonic to help people remember, the first point being the most important in this case:
- Don’t fly near airports or airfields
- Remember to stay below 120m (400ft) and at least 50m (150ft) away from people
- Observe your drone at all times
- Never fly near aircraft
- Enjoy responsibly
Registration and Electronic Tagging
Another option which is being consiered in both the UK and the EU is requireing drones to be registered. Coupled with this registration would be adding an identification number to the drone. Similar to manned aviation or cars. This would not be for all drones, but those over 250 g.
In addition to having the number on the drone, some people also propose having an electronic means of identification.
The idea is that if a drone is tagged and registered it will be easy to find the owner. However, this is just an idea. The datils will need to be worked out.
The US has a drone registration scheme in place, but no electronic tagging. However, it does not seem to help in policing the misuse of droens. The Federal Aviation Adminiatration has also taken no action based on the list of registered drones. Also, those flying drones recreationally don’t have to register their drones, due to a recent court case.
Counter Drone Methods
The final option is counter drone methods. There are several counter drone technologies and methodologies being developed. Some of these methods are:
- Egeals. You might not think it at first. But the Ductch Police are looking at using them.
- A gun. It has been done. However, the drone will fall uncontrolled from the sky and bits of drone might get onto the runway. And would still have to be closed.
- Nets. These can be mounted on a drone that changes and tries to catch the trespassing from. Or they can be fired from a cannon.
- Mess with the control signal. There are several ways to do this. But most interrupt the signal between the controller and drone to trigger the ‘return home’ function that most commercial drones have.
However, I would not rush into implementing any of them. Careful consideration must be given to what the benefits of any one system is against its drawbacks. The goal of any technology or method would not just be to get the drone out of the way but to do it safely as well.
Currently, the European Union has a consultation out on new drone regulations. They do mention that are aware of the counter drone technologies, but they consider them out of scope in their draft.