The Gatwick Crisis and the Inadequacy of Countermeasures

4 mins read

By Siobhan Balie

Drones were a cause for crisis over the festive period with one of Britain’s busiest airports coming to a stand still as a result of apparent sightings in the British controlled airspace. Despite this event being considered as a crisis, the threat was blown out of proportion and the countermeasures considered were flawed.

About 1,000 flights affecting 140,000 passengers were cancelled across the three days from the 19th to 21st December. Additionally, a British couple found themselves as the victims of a witch hunt in which they had their privacy and identities completely exposed whilst also finding themselves being referred to as ‘terrorists’ and ‘clowns’ in the media.

This has all seemed disproportionate to the event. While it has been stated that there were numerous illegal drone sightings over the three day period, these reports have been disputed and now it is being acknowledged that a huge problem in communications may have skewed these facts.

Sussex chief constable Giles York admitted that police drones during the disruption may have added to the chaos, whilst further statements made by Sussex police have also led to questions on whether the drones existed at all. The response to the drone sightings can also be seen as excessive due to the fact that such instances are not as rare as one might assume.

A report by the department for transport last year counted 70 occasions in 2016 where drones had been flown too close to commercial airliners. This has also occurred in Ottawa Canada, Dubai, Warsaw airport, and at Jiangbei airport in China. The difference however, is that no airport has ever been closed for so long.

With the rapid proliferation of drone use both military and commercially in recent years it has been inevitable that such incidents would occur.

Britain has only recently introduced drone legislation which has made it illegal to fly a drone above 400 feet or within a kilometre of an airport, experts however, have argued that they have acted too late, and have no effective or efficient countermeasures for such threats. The various proposed countermeasures of such a threat include: shooting down the drone, sending fighter jets to intercept, jamming the signal or hacking the drone.

The inadequacy of the shooting down measure was made explicitly clear with the Gatwick incident with Secretary of State for Transport, Mr Grayling stating, “You can’t just fire weapons haphazardly in what is a built up area around an airport’’.

Also the drone incident in Ottawa Canada in 2016 called into question the cost-effectiveness of using fighter jets against such technology. Additionally, the use of radio jamming technologies and hacking which Security Minister Ben Wallace has stated are difficult to deploy into civilian spaces have their own problems due to the urban environments where these commercial drones are used.

More so, it must also be made clear that while this event at Gatwick has shown how drones pose a vulnerability to public space, this vulnerability must not be exaggerated as was the case at Gatwick.

Drones were developed as a military technology and have military solutions and countermeasures. Therefore, arguments such as those that officials have acted too late, and have no effective or efficient countermeasures for such threats seem reasonable. The solutions are military and therefore will not be applicable to commercial drones and their threat to public space.

Therefore, vulnerability will only cease once solutions and countermeasures become appropriate to the environment in which commercial drones are operated.

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