Gatwick Airport has recently shut down due to drone activity on its runways. It is illegal to fly drones within 1km of British airports, over concerns around terrorism, spying and damage to planes. Offenders can face up to five years in prison and unlimited fines.
There were 93 drone ‘incidents’ near airports in 2015 alone – whilst new drone laws have done a lot to deter drone pilots from flying near airports, more needs to be done. Just over 3 million passengers move through Gatwick in November alone; even one day of disruption can cause huge amounts of stress for thousands of people.
The passengers left stranded in the airport, as well as the entire country following the story are asking the same question: how can drones cause an entire airport to shut down?
Drones flying at their maximum speed can severely damage the body of a plane, including the wings. Whilst most planes could withstand a direct collision with a drone and still fly, if one were to get sucked into an engine it could spell disaster for the plane and those onboard.
Plane collisions with birds are frequent, and even these can cause serious damage to planes. Drones have more weight, more part, and batteries which can cause disastrous fires.
Drones are helpful for reconnaissance, able to scope out and relay information about locations to whoever is controlling it. If undetected, a drone could in theory explore a large area in ways a human agent never could. Drones can also be used to act as cameras, keeping watch over an area while the pilot warns others of potential threats.
Alternatively, drones could be rigged to carry small amounts of explosives, effectively making them flying bombs. This happened earlier in 2018 in a dramatic assassination attempt on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Whilst drones can’t currently carry much more than a hand grenade, they could become more dangerous in the future.
Have New Drone Laws Made Aviation Safer?
Larger drones can show up on some airport radar systems, confusing air traffic control. This could severely disrupt take-off and landing procedures.
There are several options available to deter or disable drones from a distance. Drone ‘rifles’ can disable them from a distance of up to 2km; one is always carried by Donald Trump’s security team.
Geofencing is another technique that can protect an area from drones. This involves GPS technology that can restrict a drone’s ability to fly within a listed geofenced area. The Dutch police also experimented with trained eagles to swoop down and catch drones in their fearsome talons.
Drone defences will doubtlessly be improved in the wake of events like Gatwick’s drone incident. As drones become more commonplace in the coming years, airports like Gatwick will need to invest to keep their planes and passengers safe.