Words By: RUSTA Training
It’s been over ten days since the cataclysmic events that caused so much disruption at Gatwick.
Initially, on the surface, it appeared this was something resembling another possible drone incursion that would have eventually got sensationalised in the tabloids then forgotten about. However, it soon became apparent, by mid-morning on the 20th, that this was something unprecedented in the evolution and history of drones.
It wasn’t simply someone who was flying about blissfully unaware of the rules and regulations, or a possible highflying object that may or may not have been a drone. This was something far more contrived, calculated and executed. And I, like many other commentators, were completely caught out and surprised by the impact that ensued. Nefarious activities with these commercial off the shelf products are not new. Terrorist organisations in volatile theatres have been employing similar platforms for several years and there was even an assassination attempt in Venezuela in 2018 using a drone. Using a device to simply disrupt was arguably not expected and has caused many people to sit up and take note and has painfully highlighted the shortcomings in the security of airports.
The implications of this possible coordinated act impacted thousands of people at Gatwick, caused misery to many more across the globe and caused precious resources to be diverted to Gatwick in support of the emergency services trying to resolve this irritation
The headlines for the next two days were taken up with the Gatwick drones. I was invited on several radio shows to discuss the events and all I could really do was point out and explain the CAA drone code and the Air Navigation Order. I was asked on what measures could have stopped this and I pointed out that there were many counter drone outfits out there but regulation was slow in permitting many devices to be utilised. I was asked why the police hadn’t simply just shot the device out of the sky? Why they hadn’t rammed it with another drone and why other creative counter tactics had not been used? Clearly there was a hint of panic sweeping the nation and the possibility of copycat style attacks was omnipresent in everyone’s mind. What followed was, in my opinion, deeply disturbing. The Police arrested two suspects, who apparently had a solid alibi, and were held and questioned for 36 hours. Their names and pictures appeared on the cover of nearly every national newspaper on the 23rd with one tabloid implying that these were the criminals that ruined Christmas. In contrast there have been many operators, both legal and illegal, who have operated outside of the rules and regulations and having been caught getting away with barely a telling off. A few have been prosecuted but they were low profile compared to this. The unfortunate couple became wrongly accused and infamous overnight. The fallout from individuals stating that there may have not been drones after all has been blown out of all proportion. Of course there was something untoward, however this all becomes muddled when other sources are also reporting the possibility of a police drone in the area. This may have well been the case as my Academy (RUSTA) has been heavily involved in training both Surrey and Sussex police who also operate at Gatwick airport. But, having personally seen the de-confliction plan in place with Air Traffic Control and the coordination measures used this reported confusion is surely nonsense as police operators are well trained and disciplined.
So what does this mean for the industry for 2019 and beyond? In aviation it often takes an incident of such proportion to highlight areas that need addressing.
Firstly, its now glaringly obvious that airports and indeed other sensitive areas, like Nuclear Power Stations, sport stadiums etc. need some sort of security and protection from rogue drones. Chris Grayling, The minister for transport, has recognised this and counter systems will start to be become regular features at airports and hopefully at other vulnerable sites. Ofcom will have to look at relaxing the rules governing frequency control in order for full effectiveness on some of the active jamming systems.
Secondly, if someone decides to attempt such a thing in the future they should be under no illusion that the repercussions will be very harsh, as of course they should be. There should be no more ‘slap on the wrists’ approach from the authorities. Illegal operators should be held culpable with the full force of legislation brought down upon them.
Finally, because of the exposure of this incident the perception of drones may have been dented. However, taking a positive from the ubiquitous nature of the reporting is that it has indeed educated many people who were unaware of the rules and regulations that are in place. This may cause new operators to research where is permissible to fly in the future.
In conclusion this could have been a lot worse. Despite the misery at the airports no one was physically hurt and no infrastructure or aircraft were damaged. Despite my findings I’m sure there will have been dozens of lessons learnt by the authorities and perhaps security will be stepped up nationwide across many different sites and industries.
Article written by Sion Roberts CEO of RUSTA