UK Police No Closer To Finding Gatwick Drone, Or Offender

Filed Under: Misc.

Gosh what a mess this situation is.

Just before Christmas, Gatwick airport, the second busiest airport in the UK, was closed for 33 hours because two drones were spotted in the airport area. Hundreds of flights were cancelled, delayed or re-routed, with 140,000 travellers affected just days before Christmas.

It was the single most disruptive event to hit Gatwick airport since the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Icelandic volcano eruption that affected so much of Europe.

Local police originally said that they would not reopen the airport until they found the offender(s) and the drone(s). I did say at the time, during the shutdown, that I didn’t think the drone operators would be sitting around the airport perimeter waiting for the police to arrive, given it made international news.

The airport eventually reopened, but what has happened in the ten days since?

Wrongly accused suspects

One of the most unbelievable things that happened, which I chose not to write about at the time for reasons I’ll explain below, was that a British couple was brought in for questioning. While this in itself does not sound unusual, the couple was named publicly in the British press and their photographs plastered across the internet for several days with the strong suggestion that they were responsible for ruining Christmas.

I believe a neighbour of theirs tipped off the press.

They were questioned, and then released without charge — their employers confirmed they were at work during the incident, so could not have been flying drones near the airport.

I did think as soon as I saw their photographs in the British press, that the pair looked like the last two people likely to be spending their evening shutting down an airport by hiding in bushes in winter operating industrial drones.

Local Sussex police have since ‘apologised’ to the local couple for the mistake. I can’t imagine how much this couple’s lives has been ruined by this error — if they have the opportunity to seek compensation I think they should.

They will forever be remembered as ‘the couple who shut down Gatwick airport’ — the subsequent news that they were released without charge was not as widely reported as the initial news that they ‘could be the culprits.’ Imagine going for a job interview and the employer saying ‘you look familiar — are you that person who was arrested for shutting down Gatwick airport?’

I’m not going to link to any article about the couple’s identities, nor share their names or photograph, as they have already been through enough.

So what about the actual culprit(s)?

Local police are no closer to finding out who did it than they were at the time.

A few days ago they said there may have been no drone at all, though they later retracted that statement.

Then they admitted that some of the reported drone sightings may have been the public spotting police drones that were searching for the actual drones.

They have searched 26 ‘local launch sites’ that the drone(s) could have been launched from, but surprise, surprise, haven’t found any drones.

Perhaps that is because the drone and their operator fled the scene long before the police arrived and are not still waiting around 10 days later to be found and arrested?!

Norwegian 737 at Gatwick

Bottom line

I asked a UK friend who has a (small, personal) drone about this, and he said that his drone has built in technology that makes it impossible to fly it into restricted air space, like an airport, even if he wanted to.

And no, he was nowhere near Gatwick at the time — I did make that joke to him already!

Industrial drones may not have this type of inbuilt restriction, assuming operators already know where they should and should not operate them.

I do not think Sussex police will ever find the drone(s), or operators(s). It’s not like the offenders are going to be hanging around the Gatwick perimeter 10 days later. The whole point of a drone is that it can be operated from a great distance, and is small and portable enough that it can be packed up and moved quickly.

I do hope this incident leads to drone technology incorporating more sophisticated restrictions to stop these devices from entering restricted airspace. This is because I also think this sort of prank will attract copy cat drone operators who will try and shut down another UK or European airport.

Do you think the drone(s) and their operator(s) will ever be found?

  1. James many thanks for this story. We were just discussing an hour ago here in Brussels. It’s absolutely crazy, and this story just gets crazier and crazier. Well, sorry to say it’s like a metaphor for the madness known as Brexit: nobody in charge, nobody knows how this all transpired or what’s going to happen and everyone is treading water until …. mid-January!

  2. Even on those drones with built in restrictions, it’s possible to disable them. So that’s not a guarantee that they can’t be used around airports. But the problem is not the drones, it’s the idiots who operate them. As a drone owner myself, it pisses me off that these morons ruin it for those who are responsible. This s*** ends up resulting in more and more restrictions even where they are not needed.

  3. Saw a post on where someone put forth the idea that this was a test run by the UK government for the chaos a hard Brexit will cause and how planes can be diverted to different airports both inside and outside the country.

  4. UK airports are useless: Heathrow closes when a snowflake hits the tarmac, and Gatwick closes for drones which don’t exist. I am not surprised.

  5. I read somewhere that the intelligence services needed the airport closed for reason of an inbound flight suspected to be carrying the perps of that recent murder in Morocco. They usually have a handy list of excuses ready to do this, with drones being obviously plausible. This resulted in someone putting up a real drone to investigate the situation regarding said flight – with the airport already closed, what could possibly go wrong ? The resulting REAL drone sighting caused a longer airport closure and the chaotic response as they flailed about in their transition from fake drone closure to real drone closure with the left hand not knowing what the right was doing, lower echelons of the local police acting without knowing the whole thing started as a faked cover incident, press leaks regarding suspects, etc. There is always more to these incidents than is officially reported 😉

  6. From the beginning I have suspected that this was a case of “hivizziness”.
    There may well have been one drone at the beginning, but possibly not.
    But everything after that was probably “I thought I saw…”, lights on lampposts, reflections of airport/distant helicopter lights, etc. and apparently Police Drones.

    But the police are paranoid of being blamed if there is an accident, i.e. they ascribe value on that side, but no value to the disruption caused by closing the airport.
    Some of the responsibility for this lies with the way that the media would react if there was a crash.

    But the deliberate misinformation such as “industrial specification”, “numerous illegal drone sightings” is disgraceful.
    It recalls the way that immediately after the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes the police PR department put out false stories that he had jumped the Tube barrier, run away from the police, and was wearing a padded jacket in the summer.

    Policing is not easy, but they should do better at:
    a) recognising that they are just are prey to groupthink delusion as other people
    b) admitting mistakes quicker.

  7. Speaking from an engineering background with multiple years developing industrial and paramilitary drones, aerospace geofence restrictions can be made more robust, but can still be altered or overridden. Additionally, many technologies to actively jam/disable/destroy rogue drones are already fielded, but authorization and policy need to be prepared for their use.

    Side note: paramilitary drones are usually equipped with a transponder, so short range radars can quickly discriminate between friendly and rogue drones.

    This is a frightened wakeup call for the vulnerabilities of airports to relatively inexpensive and easy to operate drones.

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