Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
January 8, 2019

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Contact tracing and COVID-19 director’s briefing

counter-drone tech

Gatwick Airport spends £5m on anti-drone tech after Christmas chaos costs £20m-plus in lost revenue

Gatwick airport spent £5m on counter-drone technology in the days following the drone-related disruption to flights in the run-up to Christmas.

It’s almost certain this sum was dwarfed by revenue lost by the airport and airlines as a result of flights cancelled over safety fears.

The cost of the chaos, which led to the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights, is expected to run into tens of millions of pounds. A spokesman for the airport has suggested a figure of at least £20m.

Aside from the critical priority of protecting passengers, some observers may wonder whether the economics of investing in anti-drone tech were a no-brainer given the costs associated with cancelling flights or shutting the airport down.

Several trials of anti-drone technologies have been run or are underway around the world. In May, for instance, London Southend Airport successfully tested an anti-drone system that combines radio frequency and optical sensors to detect drones.

We’ve previously examined the regulatory hurdles and other possible reasons – including a reactive approach to mitigating threats – why bolder action wasn’t taken earlier by governments and airports.

There were  117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones in 2018, up to November

The threat wasn’t merely theoretical. There were already 117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones in 2018, up to November.

Gatwick Airport itself closed for around 20 minutes in 2017 amid concern that drone pilots were trying to film close encounters with aircraft. In a separate incident last summer, a drone ‘put 130 lives at risk’ after nearly hitting an aircraft approaching the airport.

Of its investment in counter-drone technology, first revealed by the Times, Gatwick said it had “equipped itself for the same level as was supplied by the armed forces originally”.

Heathrow Airport, the only UK airport busier than Gatwick, has also acquired new technology to combat rogue drones in the wake of the chaos at Gatwick, which disrupted flights across three days.

Other international airports have been alarmed by the incident and have been consulting Gatwick about how to upgrade their own defences.

Extension of exclusion zones

The government has announced an extension of the airport exclusion zones, from the current 1km to 5km, with additional extensions at the end of runways.

Drone users who breach the rules can be fined or even jailed.

Police officers will be granted new powers to deal with drone pilots who break the law, while the government is to conduct trials of anti-drone technology.

“The disruption caused by drones to flights at Gatwick airport last month was deliberate, irresponsible and calculated, as well as illegal,” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told parliament as he announced the measures on Monday.

From November 2019 operators of drones weighing between 250g and 20kg must register their drones and take an online safety test. These measures were scheduled before the drone sightings at Gatwick.

The government is also assessing feedback from the aviation and drone industries as part of a consultation on the future of drone technology and regulation in the UK.

Aviation minister Liz Sugg is set to meet the heads of Britain’s biggest airports next week to discuss the problem.

As yet the police still haven’t charged anyone responsible for operating the drones that were sighted multiple times over Gatwick between 19-21 December. Neither have they found the drone or drones involved after scouring dozens of potential launch sites near the airport.

Two people were arrested over the disruption but were released without charge after 36 hours.

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