Two years ago, 1,000 flights were cancelled or diverted at London Gatwick Airport due to a series of drone sightings.

Christmas travel at Gatwick was thrown into disarray from December 19-December 21 2018 after drones were spotted near the airport. The incident resulted in the diversion or cancellation of approximately 1,000 flights and affected the travel plans of around 140,000 passengers.

At around 9pm on December 19, a security officer waiting at one of the airport’s bus stops reported seeing two drones – one above a vehicle, another above a perimeter fence. Within minutes, London’s second biggest airport was closed and all flights suspended. The next half hour saw six more sightings, five of which were reported by police officers.

Sussex Police believed incident was an inside job

Gatwick’s plans to reopen its single runway on December 20 were disrupted several more times by further drone sightings. Local police force Sussex Police worked on the theory that a drone operator, believed to be within a  five mile radius of the airport, was intentionally disrupting flights and may have access to the airport’s radar or communication systems.

Sussex Police called for military deployment, alongside officers from five other police forces in a bid to get operations at Gatwick up and running again in time for the pre-Christmas rush. Having reopened the airport again at 6am on December 21 with limited capacity, it closed just a couple of hours later after another drone sighting.

Although Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe said the airport would be “back to normal” by the end of December 21, operations were shut down yet again at 5.30pm due to another suspected sighting, but reopened again around an hour later.

Drone enthusiasts were released without charge

On the same day, Sussex Police arrested two drone enthusiasts who lived in Crawley, two miles from the airport. They were cleared of any involvement and released without charge two days later and later awarded £200,000 compensation for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment in an out-of-court settlemenDelays were still being felt at Gatwick on December 22 due to displaced crews and aircraft.


Doubts crept in when DCS Jason Tingley suggested the possibility that there never had been any drone activity on December 23, but this was swiftly debunked the following day by the force’s Chief Constable, Giles Yorke who cited 92 “credible” reports of drone sightings.

On Christmas Eve, Ben Wallace, then serving as the government’s security minister, announced: “The huge proliferation of such devices, coupled with the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions.”

He also announced detection systems had been deployed throughout the UK to combat the threat.

Police and Airport operators say attack was “malicious”

Both Sussex Police and Gatwick Airport maintain to this day that the drone incidents were part of a malicious attack on airport operations but no culprit, images or videos of the drones were ever found. Two years on, the Gatwick drone incidents remain a mystery, with other theories put forward including mass panic, or people attributing a sinister cause to objects which were already there.

Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe said during the incident: “I think what’s clear from the last 24 hours is that drones are a UK aviation issue, or even an international aviation issue. We have had the police, we have had the military seeking to bring this drone down for the last 24 hours and to date that has not been successful.”

The military stood down in early January 2019  following a  £5 million investment into a counterdrone system by Gatwick Airport.

Two years on from the Gatwick drone incidents, there are more solutions to bring down suspect UAVs coming to market, but discussions around how existing airspace users can co-exist with beneficial drones are still taking place.

PwC predicts 76,000 drones by 2030

These include the use of unmanned air system traffic management (UTM) and air traffic management (ATM) around airports to understand how legitimate drone flight can be identified and successfully distinguished from rogue or threat drones.

The discussions formed part of a FINN Sessions panel discussion during FIA Connect. Keeping our skies safe: identifying legitimate drones and managing the threat of unauthorised drone flight considered how “drones for good” were becoming more common in UK airspace, with analysts PwC were predicting there would 76,000 drones by 2030 supporting a £42bn net impact on the economy.

The growth of beneficial drone use also brought with it the continued issue of drones operated negligently or with malicious intent. The panel, which included representatives from Collins Aerospace, GSDM, Thales and Arup also explored advances in UTM development and its role in mitigating the presence of unauthorised drone activity.

Physical security systems must include airspace

Geoff Moore, Senior Aviation Security Consultant of Arup said there was still a huge amount of work that needed to be undertaken before the drone economy could co-exist alongside existing airspace users. He added it was vital that countries started to consider use of their airspace, as well as ground space and integrate physical security systems within them

He added said the move towards autonomous operations required “a whole set of infrastructure skills” with still many unanswered questions around who was operating drones, whether they were skilled or unskilled pilots, how many vehicles should they be able to look after and considering different kinds of drone operations.

Moore added interventions also needed to be discussed in the event of something going wrong, how would controllers could connect to a vehicle, and especially in a situation where there’s virtually no mobile phone coverage.

‘Crawl, walk, run’ approach doesn’t work

He explained: “A lot of people talk about this sort of concept of the ‘crawl, walk, run’ evolution of unmanned aviation, but its really hard to see how that can evolve. Because there’s no organic path for that to happen, we’re not starting from anywhere.”

“The analogy would be, in the rest of the transportation space, it would be like having factories making bicycles, cars and trucks without any roads, without any traffic lights, without any petrol stations. Why would that work?”

He concluded that the industry need to help governments identify the areas where they can create a platform to “kickstart” the drone economy.

Moore explained that small operators who had an idea about a service they could provide using a bought in vehicle could pay a subscription to a UTM solution which would will enable them to offer that service within the community and generate revenue from it.

Major roadblocks in the way of making drone economy a reality

But he added there were major “roadblocks” in the way of bringing the drone economy closer to reality. Legislation in the pipeline has already delayed by COVID-19 and Brexit. He added the new economy would also require upfront investment.

Moore explained: “I think that a big level of investment required is to create those roads, petrol stations and traffic lights that don’t currently exist; write the Highway Code, because it still doesn’t exist.”
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