February 4, 2023

image: Andy Potter, via CC 2.0

A rogue drone has been blamed for two runway closures and the diversion of five flights at Gatwick Airport in the U.K. yesterday.

The BBC reports that Sussex Police are investigating a reported drone sighting that caused the problems. “Runway operations at Gatwick were suspended between 18:10 BST and 18:19, and again from 18:36 to 18:41, resulting in a small number of go-arounds and diverts,” the airport reported.

While the flight disruptions have been widely reported in the media, and the cause of the problem clearly identified as a drone, as yet all reports cite only hearsay evidence that a drone was involved in the incident.  Previously reported “near misses” with drones have often later been proven to involve other objects, like the plastic bag or balloon reported as a near disaster last year.

U.K. drone laws clearly state that flight is restricted near airports.  While most are unproven, the U.K. Airprox Board reports 70 “near misses” involving drones in 2016.  These reports have led to calls for stricter drone regulations, including harsher penalties for infractions near airports.  The British Airline Pilots’ Association has published a response to this weekend’s incident, proposing more technology solutions and possible jail time for drone operators who interfere with larger aircraft.  “Yet another incident at Gatwick involving drones shows that the threat of drones being flown near manned-aircraft must be addressed before we see a disaster,” said BALPA’s flight safety specialist, Steve Landells.  “….We believe a collision, particularly with a helicopter, has the potential be catastrophic. Measures should be put in place that will allow the police to identify and locate anyone who flies a drone in an irresponsible way.”

“Owing to the huge numbers of drones being sold, more technological solutions will undoubtedly be required to address this problem and should be mandated,” said Landells. “These should include, amongst other things, geofencing as standard and a system whereby the drone transmits enough data for the police to locate the operator when it is flown in a dangerous manner.

“If the user has endangered an aircraft, we would like to see the culprit prosecuted; endangering an aircraft has a maximum sentence of five years in prison.”

A spokesman for the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority said that it was “totally unacceptable” to fly drones near airports and that breaking the rules would result in “severe penalties, including imprisonment.”