Operators who deliberately fly rogue drones in the runway area form a “new kind of threat” to airports, UK transport secretary Chris Grayling asserted, describing this week’s incident at Gatwick as “unprecedented anywhere in the world.” Reports of drones flying over the perimeter fence and into Gatwick’s airfield since Wednesday evening forced the closure of its single runway, leading to hundreds of flight cancellations and diversions during the year’s busiest travel period.
“These events obviously highlight a wider strategic challenge for aviation in this country which we need to address together with speed—the aviation industry, government, and all the other relevant authorities,” Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate said. “It cannot be right that drones can close a vital part of our national infrastructure in this way.”
The runway reopened at 6:00 a.m. local time on Friday though the drone, or drones, and their operator had not been located at that time. The last verified report of a drone sighting was around 10 p.m. on Thursday, a Gatwick spokesman told AIN. Airport staff had spotted the first two drones flying in and around the airfield drones and consequent reports were made by staff and police, he said. He could not confirm how many times a drone was seen flying over the airfield, noting the investigation is in the hands of Sussex police.
Sussex police said there had been more than 50 sightings of a drone since the runway was first closed. It described via its Twitter account the drone use as a “deliberate act” but said there were “no indications to suggest this is terror related.”
Police and the British military arrived at the site on Thursday. The British military are deploying “specialist equipment,” defense secretary Gavin Williamson said without specifying what capabilities these are.
Mitigating measure put in place by the airport, government agencies and the military provided management the confidence it needed to re-open the runway, the Gatwick spokesman emphasized.
British pilots, however, remain “extremely concerned” about the risk of a drone collision despite the installation of detection and tracking equipment around the perimeter of Gatwick. “The expectation is that if and when the drones reappear, they will be detected and the airport will close again. It is possible that the rogue drones may go undetected around the perimeter or could obstruct the flight paths outside the immediate detection zone it,” British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) general secretary Brian Strutton pointed out.
Gatwick itself does not have any anti-drone technologies or systems in place, the spokesman said. “Reality is that there is no single off-the-shelf solution we can use; there is nothing at the moment that is commercially available and one hundred percent full-proof.”
Grayling is planning to set up a stakeholders' group to assess the problem arising from drones. “We’re going to have to learn very quickly from what’s happened. I plan to convene discussion with other airports around the UK very quickly indeed so that they know what’s happened, they understand what lessons need to be learned, and we’ve put in place every measure we possibly can to ensure this can’t happen again,” he said.
The airport aimed to accommodate at least 80 percent of its flight schedule today. The original planning had scheduled 837 movements—takeoffs and landings. On Thursday it cancelled all 733 planned movements.