“It’s Time For Sensible Discussions” – Drone Incidents at Gatwick and Heathrow Airport

Jan 10, 2019 | Airports, Qualifications, Regulation

Is the car inherently evil?”

In the first decade of the 20th century there were no stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver’s education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver’s licenses or posted speed limits. Our current method of making a left turn [USA] was not known, and drinking-and-driving was not considered a serious crime.

There was little understanding of speed. A driver training bulletin called “Sportsmanlike Driving” had to explain velocity and centrifugal force and why when drivers took corners at high speed their cars skidded or sometimes “turned turtle” (flipped over). 

Politicians, police and judges debated how to control them: What was the law of the road, and who was guilty or innocent in cases of lawsuit and litigation?“(ref: https://tinyurl.com/y9wl7c79)


Sound familiar? So… we’re here again.

It is the early days of exponential growth of a new technology, people are a little bit scared of unmanned aircraft; existing legislation and infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the pace of change and today it appears that someone has maliciously used that technology to cause major disruption at Gatwick Airport, UK. Myself and a number of my colleagues who have been living and breathing drones for a few years now have been called upon to offer comment in the media.

Why aren’t the geofences working? Why can’t the drones be shot down? How are they being controlled? Should drones be banned? Should we increase legislation? Those are pretty much the questions we have been asked all day in varying tones of consternation and frustration.

Let me first say how sorry I feel for all the people caught up in the delays and inconvenience of today. Personally, I feel that Gatwick have responded totally appropriately and it is better to have people delayed and inconvenienced than to have an incident resulting in injury or death.

There are going to be a lot of learning points to take away from this situation. As an industry body we have been warning for 5 years or more that there is the potential for drones to be misused, as can any useful technology. I sat in a conference in 2013 where I explained to key stakeholders how I could potentially do exactly what has been done today, so it doesn’t surprise me that it has happened, I am just very thankful that it has actually had a relatively benign outcome that will hopefully get people talking about prevention.

Unfortunately, the prevention is the difficult part at the moment. When open source technology is used, that operates on readily available frequencies, it is very easy to bypass both technological and physical barriers. Nets, birds of prey, frequency jammers etc. are not in themselves going to stop a malicious pilot until it is far too late. It is going to take the defence mechanisms, plus intelligence and education, to minimise the risk of a repetition and, at the end of the day, it may not be possible to stop it.

Geofencing is vulnerable as it relies on software respecting the geofence. All a geofence is is the equivalent of a polite notice saying “please don’t fly here”, if a drone says “no” or doesn’t read the sign there is nothing that can be done.

Physical deterrents require that deterrent to be in the right place, at the right time. If something can fire a net, a drone can fly higher. Frequency jammers are effective up to a point, but there are ways around that.

Legislation is helpful, where people are willing to follow it. But if people say no then what can you do?

When it comes down to it, this isn’t a drone issue. Drones are VERY useful; we do a lot of good work with them that either can’t be done by other methods or reduces costs or improves human safety. We inspect structures, we map, we model, we create beautiful images. We have done so for the last six years and we do it well.

This is a human issue. A human has used a drone to deliberately disrupt in the same way we use drones to deliberately improve. The same can be said of almost every human innovation since the sharpened stick. Except possibly the Rubik’s cube, but I bet if I dig deep enough into the internet I can find someone who has managed to misuse one.

Should we ban drones? Of course not. They are a useful tool. Should we legislate, educate and continue to innovate? Of course! It is what we do. Our instructors have trained thousands of pilots over the last five years. We hear great stories of what they are up to almost every day and I am continuously impressed by the new ideas that I see on an almost daily basis when drones are used properly as part of toolboxes and processes.

The drone industry is now shifting. The drones are not really much more difficult to use than a drill or a DSLR. A “drone operator” as a job in the future is about as likely as “hammer operator” is now, the drone is simply becoming part of the wider toolbox that different industries have open to them.

It is important that they are used properly in the context of the industries they are applied in. It is obvious, over time, that they will become even more automated and there will be further moves towards autonomy.

But all the time people still need educating and enthusing on the use of drones, we’ll be here at The Aerial Academy to assist, and all the time pilots are needed to provide skills in data acquisition and post-processing, the team at HexCam will be happy to help.

I hope that the situation at Gatwick is soon resolved and that the people responsible are appropriately prosecuted. I hope that this will lead to sensible discussions on how drone technology can be appropriately legislated and risks mitigated moving forwards. And I look forward to continuing to be involved in this great emerging sector.

That’s it… two-pence worth. If you want more I’ll need another 4p please. It is nearly double-time for Christmas after all.

Elliott Corke, 10th January 2019

Slower animation of 3D model of excavation at Caistor Roman Project
3D animation from octocopter pictures of excavation of Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured house.
Caistor Roman Project 2012 octocopter footage