Belfast Telegraph

Gatwick drone disruption: Expert warns Northern Ireland airports could be vulnerable to copycat incident

Passengers wait for announcements at Gatwick yesterday
Passengers wait for announcements at Gatwick yesterday
Hundreds of people at departure gate
One man gets some sleep on the floor
Ryan McCready
Victoria Leonard

By Victoria Leonard

A drone expert has said the chaos at Gatwick Airport has exposed the vulnerability of UK airports to remote control aircraft and fears a similar situation could arise in Northern Ireland.

Police were last night preparing to shoot the device out of the sky in order to prevent another day of massive disruption.

Belfast International Airport said it cannot disclose specific details of security procedures to deal with such an incident.

Belfast City Airport declined to comment on matters relating to security. But City of Derry Airport said it did have systems in place to tackle such issues.

The runway of the UK's second busiest airport has been mostly closed since two drones were spotted inside the perimeter at 9pm on Wednesday. It reopened at 3am yesterday, but was closed 45 minutes later after the drones reappeared.

The military has been called in and an emergency Whitehall meeting held as efforts to find the devices and their operators continue.

Some 110,000 people were due to either take off or land at Gatwick Airport on 760 flights on Thursday, with a total of 633 outbound flights cancelled. Around 10,000 passengers were affected on Wednesday night.

Police described the drones as "industrial" models and are treating the incident as "a deliberate act to disrupt the airport".

Last night Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said there have been over 50 sightings of a drone near Gatwick.

"We have a number of persons of interest that we are following up. We are following all lines of inquiry and that would include particular groups," he said.

"One of the options is to use firearms officers if that presents itself. They have been out on the ground today and that's a consideration and a tactical option that is open to us.

"There are a number of factors in terms of range, the height of the drone and the likely impact of us firing at the drone but that is a tactical option open to the gold commander who will make a decision based on the information available to them at the time."

Mr Tingley said shooting the drone down had become an option after other strategies failed.

"In the last 24 hours we have learned so much and we have to evolve in terms of what that threat potentially may be - obviously the disruption of the airport is a significant factor here," he said. "We have to take into consideration other people that may be in range and the impact of firing at a drone."

Passengers set to fly from Belfast to Gatwick Airport today have been told to check their flight status before travelling.

EasyJet said last night: "At this stage there is no indication of when the airport might reopen and as a result we have cancelled all flights due to operate to or from London Gatwick today."

And Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said he was not in a position to say when it will be safe to reopen the airport.

Ryan McCready (33) is chief executive of Hex Horus Ltd, a Co Londonderry company specialising in countering unmanned aerial systems (UAS) - commonly known as drones - in sensitive sites. He is also the director of Europe for the Washington DC-based Counter Unarmed Aerial Systems Coalition.

Mr McCready said he was not surprised an incident such as that at Gatwick had occurred.

"The impact on airport operations is disruptive. It appears that they are making a deliberate effort not to be identified or found while conducting a disruptive drone operation," he said.

"This is a unique case as it has lasted for so long. Normally it's just 30 minutes to one hour, due to battery life.

"I'm not surprised this situation has arisen; there has been a history of these things at airports for almost two years. At Dubai International Airport there was a situation with a drone earlier this year, while an airbase in Ankara has also been targeted. This incident at Gatwick is an embarrassment in the aviation community, and it has shown that our national infrastructure is a soft target.

"I fear it has exposed the vulnerability of airports in the UK. I feel that there is a lack of understanding and appreciation of the threat and risks of aerial security.

"I would fear a similar situation could happen here."

Mr McCready said there were a range of solutions to counter drones in restricted airspace. He explained: "We can hijack it electronically and land it where we want - this technology exists.

"Or we use birds of prey, American eagles, to intercept.

"There are also drone-based solutions.

A drone fitted with a net gun which will target another drone. It captures the rogue drone, the net wraps around the propellers, a parachute opens and it brings it down safely.

"There are also measures including net guns, manual tracking. If you fire a sniper rifle it can end up going straight through the drone, which will continue flying, and the bullet can fly on for 1.5km with lethal force.

"Something like that is not recommended in the UK, it's more for conflict zones." Asked about its plan for such incidents, Belfast International Airport said: "Safety will always come first.

"The safety and security of our passengers and staff will not be compromised and therefore we cannot disclose specific details on security procedures."

George Best Belfast City Airport said it did not comment on security-related matters.

But it confirmed it had a security system in place to tackle a drone incident.

When City of Derry Airport was asked if it was confident that it was prepared to tackle such an incident should it occur, the airport replied: "Yes."

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