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Gatwick drone chaos not an unforeseen incident – expert

Multiple drone sightings caused flights to be grounded over three days at Gatwick in the run-up to Christmas.

Service vehicle on the runway at Gatwick airport which was closed after drones were spotted (Pete Summers/PA)
Service vehicle on the runway at Gatwick airport which was closed after drones were spotted (Pete Summers/PA)

Gatwick’s drone chaos was “not an unforeseen incident” and technology to identify flying gadgets has existed for several years, according to the head of a Government body.

Professor Iain Gray, chairman of the Drones Industry Action Group, said “many commentators have been talking for quite some time” about the potential of disruption from drones near airports.

The lack of information about the devices used at the West Sussex airport last month suggests any detection systems in place were of a “very primitive nature”, Prof Gray claimed.

There was not a good resilience plan in place Prof Iain Gray

He added that “pretty good technologies” exist to identify drones, such as holographic radar which can analyse different objects in airspace.

“The technology has been around for a number of years. Why have we not implemented some of those technologies faster?,” he said.

Around 10 of Britain’s busiest airports, such as the main London airports, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, all told ministers last week that they have drone detection equipment in place or are planning to install it.

Multiple drone sightings caused flights to be grounded over 36 hours at Gatwick in the run-up to Christmas, affecting the travel plans of 140,000 passengers.

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Counter-drone equipment on a rooftop at Gatwick (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Departures at Heathrow – the UK’s busiest airport – were suspended for an hour last week after a drone was spotted.

The police and Government were criticised by some Gatwick passengers who felt they were too slow to ground the drones or apprehend their operator.

Devices which detect, track and ground drones have since been installed at the airport.

Prof Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University, said the length of Gatwick’s closure suggests there was “not a good understanding” of the procedure for giving permission for flights to resume.

“For it to have been closed for three days implies there was not a good resilience plan in place,” he warned.

“At some point that type of incident was going to happen.

“The question is why weren’t people better prepared?”

He added: “This was not an unforeseen incident.”

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Queues during the disruption at Gatwick (Isabel Infantes/PA)

He compared the situation to the volcanic ash cloud which brought chaos to the European air industry for a week in 2010.

Last week, the Government announced a package of measures designed to give police extra powers to combat drones.

The exclusion zone around airports will be extended to approximately a 5km-radius (3.1 miles), with additional extensions from runway ends.

Ministers also announced that from November 30, operators of drones weighing between 250g and 20kg will be required to register and take an online drone pilot competency test.

But Prof Gray noted that the Gatwick incident was caused by a “rogue drone operator”.

He added: “Whatever laws, whatever technologies you do put in place, there will be people out there who want to try and disrupt, and do bad.”

PA

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