Engineering Ethics Blog: The Gatwick Drone Incident: Technology Outpaces Policy


Gatwick
Airport is the UK’s second busiest flight facility after Heathrow, and last Wednesday,
Dec. 19, it was accommodating thousands of holiday travelers.  Around 9 PM, an unmanned aerial vehicle
(UAV), commonly known as a drone, was sighted in the airspace dangerously near
the airport’s single runway.  Just this
year, the UK prohibited drone flights within 1 km of airports, and this drone
was well within that limit. 

No
details are yet available about exactly what kind of drone it was.  But it was large enough (or its lights were
bright enough) to be seen at night.  The
airport authorities, acting with prudence, ordered a temporary shutdown in the
hopes that the drone flight was an isolated mistake that could be dealt with
quickly.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the
case.  Shortly after flights were
resumed, another drone was sighted.  Eventually,
observers logged over 50 separate drone sightings, and the airport was shut
down for a total of 33 hours before the last drone went away and flights were
resumed.  As of Saturday, Paul Gait and
Elaine Kirk, a couple living near the airport, were arrested in connection with
the incidents, but as of Monday Dec. 24 they had been released without being
charged.

Because
Gatwick is a key hub in so many airline networks, the shutdown affected over a
hundred thousand travelers and sent ripples in the air-transport system around
the world for days.  Eventually, the authorities
mustered military equipment capable of both locating and shooting down drones,
but by that time the threat had ceased.

This
incident raises a number of questions about what the proper policies of airports
should be about drone sightings, about what regulations drone users and
manufacturers should have to deal with, and how we are going to prevent copycat
drone incidents like this in the future. 
First, the policy question.

It
looks like the UK is somewhat behind the U. S. in its regulation of drone
technology.  For several years, the U. S.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required registration of ownership of
drones (at least those above a certain size and capability), and laws are
already in place restricting drone flights above certain altitudes and near
airports.  The U. S. has had incidents of
drones near airports, but no long-term shutdowns of major airports comparable
to Gatwick. 

It’s
possible that the UK authorities erred on the side of excessive caution in
ordering a total shutdown of the airport. 
Depending on the size of the drone, they might have opted merely to warn
pilots that there was a drone in the vicinity, as there are birds whose weight
and consequent hazards to aircraft are comparable to that of a small drone, and
it is rare to see airports shut down because of excessive bird flights over the
landing areas.  But birds don’t carry explosives,
and terrorist fears were probably prominent in the decision to play it safe and
simply shut down the single runway rather than run the risk of having a plane
damaged or destroyed by a bomb-carrying drone.

That
being said, what could authorities have done to prevent the drone pilot (or
pilots) from flying their UAVs in restricted airspace?  Presently, not much, short of trying to shoot
them down.  There is electronic fence
technology available, but depending on the radio frequencies used by the
drones, attempts simply to jam the frequencies typically used by drones could
have severe unintended consequences, even possibly disrupting electronics that
are vital to legitimate air operations. 
And if the drones were pre-programmed to follow a set flight pattern,
they do not even have to be in constant communication with the drone’s operator
to fly, and therefore jamming might not have done any good.

Going
aggressive and trying to shoot the thing down is not that easy.  A drone at a distance of a kilometer or so is
a very small target.  If a bullet or
rocket misses it, that bullet or rocket is going to come down somewhere, and
typically metropolitan airports are not places where you want bullets or
rockets coming down at random.  So that’s
not a realistic option either.

The
best long-term solution might be to build in something called “remote ID”
that the world’s largest drone manufacturer, DJI, suggested in a
statement.  Remote ID would be a system
whereby all drones would transmit their location, the pilot’s location, and an
identification code in real time.  If
such a system were made mandatory, authorities could simply read the code and
run over to where the pilot is and arrest him or her.  It’s interesting that the biggest drone maker
suggests such a thing, but obviously hasn’t included it in their products yet,
possibly for cost and performance reasons. 
Low-end drones don’t have GPS receivers and wouldn’t be capable of remote
ID, but maybe those types are not the most serious threat to places like Gatwick
anyway. 

Even
with such ID technology, a determined pilot could keep on the run and stay
ahead of the cops long enough to cause serious disruption.  And chasing down more than one drone at a
time could be hard.  Because drones can
typically stay in the air for only half an hour before their batteries have to
be recharged, the number of drone sightings during the Gatwick shutdown leads
authorities to believe that several drones and operators were involved. 

The
investigation continues, and it will be interesting to discover who did it and
why.  In the meantime, the UK has had a
rough wake-up call with regard to their policy on drones.  One hopes that they don’t overreact with blanket
bans on the devices, which are proving to be useful in a wide variety of
commercial and amateur applications.  But
we can’t have major airports getting shut down at the whim of a few people with
consumer-grade drones.  So the policy and
regulatory environment, especially in the UK, will have to catch up with drone
reality on the ground—or rather, in the air—to prevent such incidents in the
future.



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