Drone Disables Gatwick
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:
A4124/18 NOTAMN Q) EGTT/QFALT/IV/NBO/A /000/999/5109N00011W005 A) EGKK B) 1812210418 C) 1812211200 E) AD OPEN. RISK OF INCREASED DRONE ACTIVITY. MITIGATION IN PLACE.
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.
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.