Drone Disables Gatwick

21 Dec 18 18 Comments

It started on Wednesday evening, around 9pm. Two drones were initially reported flying around Gatwick airport and then directly into the departure and approach areas. Officials responded swiftly, prioritising the safety of the flights by shutting down the airport. Outbound flights were delayed and inbound flights were diverted to other airports, with some flights having to go as far as Paris or Amsterdam. 

Now here’s a NOTAM I’ve never seen before:

 A4116/18 NOTAMR A4111/18 Q) EGTT/QFALC/IV/NBO/A /000/999/5109N00011W005 A) EGKK B) 1812201835 C) 1812202200 E) AIRPORT UNAVAILABLE DUE TO DRONE ACTIVITY IN THE GATWICK ATZ

On Thursday, it appeared quiet and the airport announced that they would remain closed until 16:00 UTC. However, a drone appeared at the airport again right at 4pm, a clear statement that the disruption to the airport was intended. The airport remained closed, with hopes of reopening again at 6am. 

It was clear from the start that this was someone specifically targetting the aircraft, not just some idiots who didn’t realise the effect of their actions. The operator or operators were deliberately making Gatwick Airport an unsafe environment. A quadcopter-style drone can cause a lot of damage to an aircraft, much more than a bird strike as even a standard consumer model can weigh 2kg and has a solid battery attached. 

The next NOTAM was released at 04:18 UTC:


Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Especially with the news that Gatwick Airport now had military support. Also, the wind has picked up, which is bad for drones and irrelevant to aircraft. A bit of rain helps as well. 

But the truth remains that it is difficult to protect against an intentional threat such as this one.  Many people asked why they were not jamming the signal but jamming has only a short range and only works if the drone is being directly commanded by a unit. It will do nothing if the drone has been pre-programmed with specific routes, as the signal then becomes irrelevant. Jamming GPS would certainly confuse the drone but the unintended consequences for the surrounding infrastructure, including emergency services, doesn’t bear thinking about. The same holds true for EMP (elextromagnetic pulse) to damage the drone…and all other electronic equipment in the area. This isn’t a reasonable response at a large airport. 

I’ve highlighted various uses for drones in the past and drones-to-catch-drones is clearly one of the possibilities. I can’t help but think that authorities in Gatwick were wishing they had some of the chainsaw wielding drones that I was worrying about in a previous post. 

That leaves tracking the drone to find the operators. This has been in progress since Wednesday night, both with vehicles on the ground and helicopters conducting an aerial search. It seems, however, that the drone in use is industrial and capable of high speeds and range. The drone (or drones — even the individual sightings seemed to last longer than the battery life of a single drone) appears to have returned to the operator but it isn’t easy track a small flying vehicle in the dark travelling at over 50 kilometres per hour. The range could be 1-2 kilometres, which makes for quite a large search area. By the time ground units make it to the spot, the operators are long gone, setting up somewhere else for the next flight. 

It seems pretty clear that this disruption was planned: the operator’s intention was to close down an international airport at the busiest time of year. The action is clearly intended to shine a light on a vulnerability and cause havoc, crippling a major airport. It is a threat.

This is not the first time an airport has been disrupted by drone activity, or even deliberately attacked by using drones as a hazard. It’s also not the first major issue in Gatwick. The following is excerpted from the July 2017 report from the Air Prox Board which I chose because it includes a well-known incident; however in that same month there were two lower risk reports from Gatwick as well.

The A320 pilot reports that during final descent, just inside 2nm from RW26L at Gatwick, a shiny hovering object was seen about 1nm south of the approach and passed down the port side at a similar level. It was a Quadcopter and appeared to be black and shiny; it was glinting in the sunlight

Reported Separation: 0 feet vertical/1 nautical mile horizontal

The B777 pilot reports that he was on the ILS for Gatwick RW26 when the non-handling pilot called ‘drone 11 o’clock’ the handling pilot looked up from the instruments and saw a dark coloured drone pass by the wing at the same level. An additional crew member also saw the drone from the centre jump-seat. The incident was reported to ATC.

Reported Separation: 0 feet vertical/20 metres horizontal

The A319 pilot reports that he was on an ILS approach to RW26 and 6.3nm from touchdown when the first officer noticed a small black object close to the right side of the aircraft’s path and on a converging vector. At first it was thought to be a bird, but it became apparent it was a drone. The automatics were left in, although the first officer admitted that the startle factor of the drone’s proximity nearly caused him to disconnect the autopilot for avoiding action. The twilight conditions meant that the drone appeared black, or dark in colour and at its closest point it passed between the wing-tip and the fuselage, above the right wing. A successful landing was completed and the drone reported to ATC. The police attended once the aircraft was on the stand. The drone was very large, certainly not a toy, estimated diameter was about 1m and it had 4 blades. A larger aircraft might not have missed it, and in in the Captain’s opinion it had put 130 lives at risk.

 Reported Separation: 50 feet vertical/10 metres horizontal

That’s in one month, at one airport. There were a total of 18 UK Drone/Balloon/Model/Unknown Object reports in July 2017: 15 of them were drones and the other three were unknown objects that were probably drones. According to Coptrz, there has been a 168% increase in near misses between aircraft and drones in the last two years.

In June 2018, the UK Department of Transport restricted drones to avoid airspace over four hundred feet and within one kilometre of airport boundaries. However, this incident shows that if someone is intent on causing havoc, it is very difficult to prevent it. Our ability to detect drones has greatly increased over the past five years but the ability to stop them is still problematic. 

Hawk brought down a drone

Last year there were a few programmes training eagles to take down drones but concern about injury and cruelty to the birds has put a stop to the major projects. It seems likely that technical solutions will be more effective, especially at catching the drone operators as opposed to just disabling the drones, but we aren’t there yet. This attack will mean that airport security against drones will be a priority in 2019.

Gatwick has now set up detection and tracking equipment around the perimeter of the airport, which means that they will detect the drones immediately, in which case they will need to close the airport again. 

Gatwick’s chief executive said to the press:

This is an unprecedented issue. This isn’t a Gatwick Airport issue. It’s not even a UK issue. It’s an international issue.

We have been working with technology providers ourselves for the last 12 months but stood here today, there is no commercially available airport licensed proven technology that I could implement.

The British Airlines Pilots Association (BALPA) has expressed concern about the risks of reopening and has issued advice on what pilots should do if they see a drone while flying, noting that the risk of a drone collision is still high, as the drones could obstruct flight paths outside of the immediate detection zone.

The BBC spoke to the Sussex assistant chief constable who said they were in a much better position today and there were a number of lines of inquiry into the very malicious and criminal behaviour. It appears to have been he who put forward the idea that this might be the work of an environmental activist but I haven’t seen any other information about this or anyone taking credit for the successful disruption of the airport.

Understanding the motive of the operator(s) is important to considering what’s next. If it was a political statement, then that statement has been made and there’s no reason to believe that there is high risk of another such attack at this moment. If it is ‘griefing’ — a person or group of people targeting Gatwick just to see if they can get away with it — then there’s more of a question as to whether this behaviour will escalate or not. And if it was a test run for a terrorist attack, then there’s obviously a very high risk of a follow-up, possibly with the intent of taking down an aircraft. For this reason, the UK police and government will be especially keen to find out who was involved and what their intent was.

One thing is for sure: airports authorities around the world have been shaken out of their complacency. The search for an offensive response to drones has just heated up as it becomes clear just how much financial damage and publicity can be achieved by forcing an international airport to close for 24 hours at Christmas time. 


  • Obviously, quite a bit of research has gone into this, Syliva.
    With such lack of notice this is superb investigatve work.

    But it does not solve the problem. There must be ways to stop these b…ds who do this. I am writing this at 19:00 GMT, an hour ago another drone had been spotted, closing Gatwick down again after it was hoped that the criminals had gone away.

    Oh, apparently the airport has just re-opened. Good news !

    The way car thieves get around the remote alarm and engine disabling system is: they somehow tune in to the signal from the key fob and then can re-transmit it. That way they can open the car and start it.

    It must be possible to develop somthing along a similar principle to disable rogue drones. The industry is way behind with this technology and it must be feared that criminals will be there first to disable legally operated drones. There have been proposals to use drones for deliveries. But this would open untold opportunities for criminals to interfere with the frequencies, make them land and steal the parcels.

    The threat to our privacy is small fry compared to what is now happening. When Sylvia put her enthusiasm about the future use of drone technology I poured some cold water on it. I did not think of this sort of very gross misuse.

    Drones can – and are – now be purchased over the internet. Even though there are regulations, there is no guarantee that people who buy them will even be aware of those restrictions, let alone operate them within the law.

    What happened at Gatwick is an act of terrorism: in my book the deliberate use of items that could have the potential of bringing an aircraft full of passengers down IS an act of terrorism.
    Not necessarily “Islamic” terrorists. and, btw, I have spent some time in Arabic countries and know that most, if not nearly all Muslims are decent people who do NOT support terrorism either.
    Recently I bought a small drone myself, with the intention to evaluate if it would be useful for commercial purposes. If so, I would have applied for a licence to use a commercial model. But this may no longer be an option, drones will have to be subjected to much more stringent rules and regulations. And the public may become suspicious and try to stop people who use them in a responsible fashion.

    Will drones have a future, or will they go the way of the miniature motorbikes that were so popular (and illegal !) a few years ago?

    We will wait and see.
    Maybe, in the long term, this may well be the catalyst ot regulate drones and ensure that abuse will not re-occur again.

  • Of course, I overlooked one small thing: The sort of drones that can deliver parcels will be rather big, they will navigate autonomously. They will be pre-programmed using GPS to find their destination, possibly with the aid of postal codes. Interrupting the radio signal from the operator will not work. They will create quite a nuisance: to be able to carry parcels over a distance they will be large, powerful and noisy. I can imagine that the public will soon be tired of them and want them banned..
    Anyway, criminals will always be a step ahead finding ways to intercept them. Drones, used by properly trained and licenced professionals may be beneficial, a blessing even, for instance if bringing life saving supplies to a remote location. Drones used as delivery gadgets less so. And drones used by nearly anyone, without even being aware of legal restrictions, dangers to others, even criminal use? Absolutely not, but it may already be too late to stop them.

  • low tech solution: crossbow firing bolts with line attached.
    high tech solution: directed emp pulse weapon

  • As a test run, it wasn’t bad. Imagine next year when drones take out *every* major European airport simultaneously.

    The answer isn’t good, but here’s a few worse ones:

    Shoot them down? Where do the bullets that miss wind up?
    Jam the GPS? Where do the drones go when GPS is lost?
    Jam the comm? See above. Programming them to ‘crash into something that looks valuable when comm lost’ is not difficult.

    My answer is ‘live with it’. Total safety paranoia is not the answer. There will be drone strikes upon aircraft, and most of them will tolerate it. Akin to bird strikes. It’s like terrorism and influenza – a little attack prompting a massive overreaction.

    The solution is to ignore it. In my opinion. J.

  • John,
    Have you ever seen pictures of what a bird can do to an aircraft? At least there are ways to scare them away, but they are relatively light and soft creatures.
    A drone of the class that appears to have been used in the past few days at Gatwick may well have the mass of a large bird, but it is not soft. And if deliberately flown into the patch of an aircraft it could conceivably bring it down. Imagine the consequences if the airport manager had decided to “live with it” and a major disaster would have resulted. Unfortunately the airport authorities had no choice but to consider the worst case and act on that.
    Nobody wanted to close Gatwick down, not this time of the year, the airport- and airline managers least of all, possibly even less so than the stranded passengers..But they just did not have the choice.

  • Mr. Jakma,

    I’ve seen video of what a drone can do to an aircraft wing. It’s messy. But look at Ms. Wright’s posting about a multiple bird strike, or Capt. Sullenberger’s dropping a jet into the Hudson river.

    It could indeed bring the aircraft down. Many things can. I know it’s not a good answer. But until you come up with a better one, live (or die) with it. The other costs are unacceptable.

    If you (plural – the whole industry) persist in and insist upon ‘safety at all costs’ you (plural again) will find out just what ‘at all costs’ means.

    I take some risk driving my car. I’m willing to accept the same risk on an airplane.

    The people flying drones onto airports are counting on massive overreaction. Let’s not give them what they want.


  • I am with Rudy on this one. An aircraft with 100 to 300 plus passengers would be a massive disaster if brought down. Our model aircraft airfield is just within the control area of one of our busiest airfields 5km away. The hoops we had to go through with ATC to set up the field were immense. And we have really strict rules to abide by – and our aircraft are way smaller. We operate under our local aircraft association rules with a direct mandate from our CAA. This is not an acceptable risk to live with. These are really evil people.

  • Meant to add that we have been told that if we get even close even to light aircraft, we will be shit down instantly.

  • John,
    You are right, but only partially.
    Of course, to make aviation totally safe will be to ground all and every aircraft.
    The Hudson River crash was a miracle, a combination of not only airmanship of an unbelievably high standard, but also of course of other factors including luck: The weather, a calm river within gliding distance. How many pilots would have been able to duplicate Capt. Sullenberger’s feat? Probably not many.
    But if a Boeing 777 with a full compliment of passengers gets fatally disabled on take-off, by a CRIMINAL and DELIBERATE act, this would be a totally different matter. Gatwick lies in a heavily populated area. John, you accept a certain amount of risk when driving. Does that include a (radio controlled) vehicle deliberately driven in such a way that it could cause a fatel collision?
    Perhaps there was overreaction. The investigation reports that in due time will be published will clarify that. But under the circumstances it does not seem that the authorities had much choice in the matter.
    To defend a decision that caused a lot of disruption to more than 150.000 people and losses of tens of millions to the industry is one thing, but to defend a decision that resulted in a smoking aircraft wreck, God forbid in a housing estate with hundreds dead in the aircraft and on the ground is quite another.
    I just heard on the news that a man and a women have been arrested in conjunction with this incident.
    What may be needed is a law that will allow the courts to take all possessions and earnings, to-day and in the future of these people, when they have been convicted, in compensation.
    Hit them where it hurts hardest, but these laws do not and probably will not exist. How can all these people be compensated ? Families with small children having to sit 10 hours or more in an aircraft, then being disembarked spending more than 24 hours on the floor of an overcrowded airport terminal ! Probably with overflowing toilets, food stalls runnign out of supplies. And the fact that there are refugees in other countries having to live under similar or worse circumstances may be true, but is no realistic answer either.
    How to solve this?
    Here in Ireland recreational drones may only be flown at and from areas that are approved for model aircraft. From now on, this probably will be strictly enforced. If not by the police, then I think that the public will take over. Do we want vigilantes? Of course not.
    What will be the answer?
    Time, probably. As long as this sort of thing will not be repeated, the situation will return to a more normal one.
    Rules and regulations, existing and new, will be implemented and that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

  • Mr. Jakma, Mr. Higgs, and Ms. Wrigley,

    It boils down to a lot of ethical conundra.

    This is my opinion – I’m not trying to dictate facts here, this is MY opinion, and no doubt you have one (or several!) of your own, equally (at least!) valid.

    I don’t think arresting them is going to help much.

    I’m also looking at it from the perspective of the attacker (the guy driving the drone). What did the attacker want the defence (the airport) to do? If the defender always does what the attacker wants, the attack “wins”, and will win again until something changes. Thus my answer is “don’t do what they want”. In short, ignore them.*

    From the perspective of the defence (the airport, &c) the idea is to minimize damage. Thousands of people delayed is better than the chance of a few hundred dead. But when does the chance become small enough that the cost of the guaranteed delay outweighs it?

    And that’s an ethical question that everyone will have their own answer to. I’ve mine – you’ve yours. (plural again).

    * Technically, it might be better to say a) ignore their attempts at terrifying, and then b) find and arrest them for the attempt. Not just ‘ignore all the time’.

    • There’s two important reason for arresting them. One is that it sends a signal that this isn’t something that is taken lightly or glossed over. The second is, as above, to find out the motive so as to be able to allow for better defence in the future. If it were, for example, a couple of smart-asses that wanted to see if they could get away with it, then serious charges would absolutely have a dissuading effect on the ‘let’s see what happens’ crowd.

      I understand what you mean about not playing into the hands of the attacker/terrorist but the airline industry has been through a similar issue with passengers looking to take down an aircraft (insurance claims) and hijackers. The answer had to be to dissuade the public from even attempting these things. From an aviation point of view, “ignore them” wasn’t and isn’t an option.

      (BTW, this is not me supporting the security circus we have now; as with everything, there’s a middle ground and I agree with you that aiming for zero-risk isn’t sensible).

  • Jon,

    You are turning this into a nice argument.
    But before I write my next comment: The news releases just in tell us that the two people arrested have been released without charge.
    There also appears to be a lot of confusion about what acutally happened. Were there any drones or was it a hoax? Some reports are claiming that there may not have been any drones at all, others that there have been video recordings of “objects” with lights, another that says that a damaged drone has been found near the perimeter fence of Gatwick.

    So, to turn to Jon’s line of reasoing. He is turning this into a simile of a university exercise. A professor divides a group of students in two camps and gives a particular subject for a debate. This can be a very unpleasant subject.. One part must seek arguments to defend the perpetrators, the other are the accusing party.
    This must be done, only weighing legal arguments. Most groups prefer to be in the “accusing” group. The fact that we all know which side was guilty is not important.

    Jon threw the cat amongst the pigeons and skillfully opened a debate.
    And he is not really, not totally wrong.
    But on balance:
    We know that all forms of transport bear a certain amount of risk, even a horse-and-cart.
    Aircraft are safe modes of transport, but sometimes the industry must make a decision how much risk is acceptable.
    A known risk factor can be assessed, measures can be taken to minimise the risk and that will lead to an “acceptable” decision = “go” or an “unacceptable” = “no go”.
    Birds are a risk factor, a bird strike can severely damage an aircraft, even bring it down. So airports operate all sorts of counter measures. Noise, flashes, birds of prey, sometimes an image on a kite or a real one, thethered. A vehicle may be travelling on or near the runway, emitting the death cry of the bird species that is deemed to present the danger.

    Airports also have regulations about the sort of plants or crops that may grow near the runways. Apart from contamination with kerosene fumes, cereals are not grown because they attract birds, Etc.
    Certain species have migratory patterns that are carefully watched during the migration season.

    Measures, counter measures form the basis of risk assessment.
    The basis is KNOWN risk factors.
    The senior airport staff have access to protocols that enable them to make decisions whether or not to stop departures and / or arrivals.
    Without any research about the risk posed by drones, nothing in the manuals about how to handle it, the people responsible had no option but to close the airport down.

    No doubt, there will be safety experts already doing their research, coming with options and recommendations,.And that in turn will form the basis for a new section in the operations manuals on which airlines and airport management can base their decision.

    Does it smack a bit of hiding behind rules and regulations? You bet ! But that is the way transport has operated ever since the introduction of mechanised modes of transportation. And, may I add, not without success.

    The buzz word of course ifs accountability. If the managemant follow the rules they can be exonerated if an incident does occur.

    Drones are an UNKOWN factor. Airport managers do not have a protocol, a rule book that they can consult and which forms the basis of a decision to halt operations, or not, in the event of drone activity near or even over the airport. And therefore, should the unthinkable happen they will be held responsible.

    Moreover, the behaviour of birds is known. It is thought that (some) species of birds may be sensitive to radar emissions, so many operators advocate that the weather radar be switched ON during take-off with the aerial tilted upwards.
    The landing lights are on to alert birds.
    It is also known that most birds will tend to drop down if they perceive danger, something a crew may take into consideration.

    A lot is known about birds and their behaviour.
    About drones, deliberately floiwn into the path of aircraft? Virtually nothing. Birds will try to avoid a collision, the operator of a drone may maliciously try to steer it into the path of an aircraft.

    And so I am of the opinion that in such a case the authorities must try to arrest the operator, charge him or her with ATTEMPTED MURDER and bring him or her to court.

    What is very, very worrisome is the news release this night, that the whole affair may have been a total cock-up, no drones at all, a major airport at standstill at the cost of tens of millions, more than 140.000 people’s travel plans disrupted, untold misery.

    The terminal must have become a mess too, with unwashed people, babies with dirty nappies. We used to nick-name it “Gatport Airwick”.
    Airwick badly needed !

  • @ All,

    I’m reminded a little of an early automobile regulation, where a man was required to walk some distance in front carrying a red flag. At the time, the danger of cars was not well-understood.

    Anyhow, I would like to withdraw my argument. This blog isn’t the place for it. Thank you for tolerating me thus far.


    • Sure it is; part of the whole point is to have interesting discussions on the posts! I can’t speak for anyone else but that’s why I’m here! :D

  • Jon,

    I don’t know what Sylvia thinks but there is no law against having an opinion and a polite argument.

    Yes, the “Red Flag act” was imposed in order to “protect” the public against the dangers of those four-wheeled fire breathing monsters, called “motor cars”. It was imposed only in Britan.

    And again, you are not totally wrong (except moving the discussion away from aviation). Cars were not properly understood, not properly licenced nor insured or regulated and motorists were often not able to control the vehicles that had inadequate brakes and not seldom an awful road holding.

    There were international road races. An important one was for the IV Coupe Internationale, known as the “Gordon Bennett Cup”. The country that won (teams represented countries then, not manufacturers) was supposed to organise the next one on their own soil. It was won in 1902 by a British team with a Napier. Ireland then was still under British rule. The red flag act did not apply here, so in July 1903 it was held in Ireland. Winners were a Belgian team.

    Each country had its own colour: Italy red, France sky blue, Spain yellow, Germany white (later silver when they removed the paint in order to save weight, the Netherlands orange. Britain, as a gesture to Ireland, the “Green Isle” chose British Racing Green.

    The act was lifted in 1904 and to celebrate motorists held a rally from London to Brighton, still run annually.

    OK Sylvia, back to airplanes, shall we?
    Merry Chistmas to everyone.

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