Gatwick Airport Shut Down by ‘Deliberate’ Drone Incursions
LONDON — It is one of the busiest airports in Europe. It survived World War II, when it served as a base for R.A.F. night fighters flying missions against Nazi Germany. It has just been brought to a standstill by the humble drone.
“This hasn’t happened anywhere in the world before,” said Richard Gill, the founder and chief executive of Drone Defence, which helps institutions guard their perimeters against drones.
The Gatwick shutdown scrambled hundreds of flights, stranded tens of thousands of passengers and reduced the British government to playing cat-and-mouse with the drones. Controlled, perhaps, by little more than an iPad, they were repeatedly sent over the runway of the country’s second-largest airport in what officials called a “deliberate act.”
On Thursday, about 20 police units searched the perimeter of the airfield for the drones’ operators. By nightfall, the government said it would deploy the military in a bid to reopen the airport, though it was not clear what its role would be.
Police sharpshooters were spotted at Gatwick, though officials at one point had precluded that option, citing the risk of a stray bullet hitting someone.
The airport finally reopened around 6 a.m. on Friday, more than 24 hours after a drone was first sighted, and the Gatwick website warned passengers who were hoping to travel that flights would still be subject to delays and cancellations.
The episode was proving not only a humiliation for aviation officials but also the starkest evidence to date of how vulnerable airports across the world are to the readily available flying devices.
“Over 90 percent of airports in the world are unprepared for drones,” said Tim Bean, the founder and chief executive of Fortem Technologies, which is testing a drone defense system on several American runways. “Airports, stadiums, borders, oil and gas refineries — they spend a lot of money on ground security, but I think they now need to think about their airspace security.”
As hobbyists and malfeasants alike turn neighborhood parks into airports, the newly democratized skies are becoming increasingly crowded.
The number of aircraft scares involving drones recorded by the British government has shot up to more than 100 this year; there were none in 2013. In Mexico and Canada, planes recently survived collisions with what appeared to be drones.
The authorities have so far released little information about the type of drones that were buzzing Gatwick, though airport officials said they captured surveillance footage of them. “As yet, the drone has not been identified,” the Sussex Police said in a statement.
Airport staff members first spotted a pair of drones flying over the perimeter fence and into the runway area around 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Officials shut the runway, then reopened it around 3 a.m. on Thursday before closing it again about 45 minutes later when there was another sighting. Yet another drone was spotted late Thursday morning, and people kept spotting drones through Thursday night. In all, the police said there were 50 reports of drone sightings, though some were duplicates or unconfirmed.
Police officials said there were “no indications to suggest this is terror related.”
At least 800 flights were canceled, disrupting traffic throughout Europe and affecting upward of 100,000 passengers. Arriving flights carrying 10,000 passengers were diverted, with some travelers forced to land at airports as far away as Paris.
The shutdown created bedlam at the south terminal of Gatwick, which is about 25 miles south of central London and is regularly rated Europe’s worst airport and one of the worst in the world. Long lines of weary passengers stretched from the check-in counters to the arrivals area of an adjacent building.
Passengers slumped over their luggage, refreshing their smartphone screens every few minutes for updates. Others sat staring into space, looking utterly defeated.
“Who around here can give me some information?” Gary Hornby, 47, shouted after cursing at an airport staff member.
“When the hell are we getting out of here?” he went on, kicking his suitcase.
Some passengers were baffled at how poorly prepared the airport seemed.
“This is a huge security risk,” said Alison Carter, 44, a teacher of German. “How does the airport not have the resources to down the drone? What kind of message does this give to terrorists and criminals?”
Technology companies have invented several drone defense systems, but they are relatively new, and airports and government officials are still weighing which to invest in. One system that was recently deployed to stop drug smuggling at an English prison acts as an electronic fence, blocking radio signals around a prison whenever drones are detected.
Mr. Gill, the founder of Drone Defence — which made the electronic fence — said that airports were technologically complex landscapes and that officials were studying all the available options. He said the mishap at Gatwick would concentrate people’s minds on the potential dangers.
The system developed by Fortem Technologies uses a sophisticated radar system to detect intruder drones, and then sends a drone hunter to pluck them out of the sky, dog-fighting with them, if necessary. The system is already being used to monitor two runways at Salt Lake City International Airport and others, he said.
But, Mr. Bean said, as airports focus on building tools to intercept drones that emit radio frequency signals, they are finding that drones have evolved far beyond that technology. That renders many of the current security systems obsolete.
British laws make it illegal to fly a drone within a kilometer — about three-fifths of a mile — of airport boundaries. Violators are subject to five years in prison.
And as of next Nov. 30, owners of drones weighing more than 250 grams, or a bit more than half a pound, will have to register them with the Civil Aviation Authority, and those who fly them will have to pass an online safety test. Not following these steps could result in fines of as much as $1,270.
Airports have been shut down before over drone sightings — including Gatwick, which was closed after sightings in July 2017. Airports in Chengdu, China; Dubai, the United Arab Emirates; and Ottawa have also had to shut down.
Many drones have internal GPS software that prevents pilots from flying them into restricted areas like airports. But Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in drones, said the systems were imperfect and could be subverted by people who understood their workings.
And they can do a lot of damage.
“The danger is pretty much the same as with birds: A drone may get caught in an engine during takeoff and landing,” Ms. Franke said. “It’s plastic, metal and lithium batteries that can explode.”
About Fortem Technologies
Fortem Technologies is the leader in airspace awareness, safety and security for a drone world. Fortem delivers commercially available solutions that detect and measure intention of drones in real time to maintain airspace safety, while actively protecting No-Fly Zones. Based in Pleasant Grove, Utah, the company is privately held and backed by Boeing, Signia Venture Partners, DCVC, Mubadala Investment Company, and others.