The chaos caused to flights from Gatwick just before Christmas (and latterly, Heathrow) by drone sightings near the airports has prompted Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, to announce new counter-drone measures to be taken to protect UK airports.
Increased Exclusion Zone
Mr Grayling, speaking in the House of Commons as the government published its response to its consultation on the future of drones in the UK, and in the wake of the three-day shutdown of Gatwick by unauthorised drone activity in December, announced that the UK government would increase drone exclusion zones around airports from 1km to 5km, and further from the ends of runways.
Following the three-day Gatwick (1000+ flight cancellations) issue that caused a national outcry, disrupted the travel plans of 140,000 people, and may have cost the airport more than £120 million, it has reported that Gatwick has spent £5m on anti-drone equipment. The equipment, which uses advanced technology, is believed to be of the same level as was originally supplied for the armed forces.
Heathrow (the world’s busiest airport) is also reported to have invested in anti-drone technology, although it appears unlikely that this is fully operational as the north runway was forced to close for an hour on Tuesday 8th January after reports of possible (unconfirmed) drone sightings in the area.
New Laws Too
Part of the anti-drone measures will include new laws that could see drone users who break the rules being fined or jailed, and police being granted new powers e.g. to be able to ‘down’ drones in certain restricted areas.
Also, from November this year, operators of drones weighing between 250g and 20kg will have to register their drones and take an online safety test.
The problems caused by drones are not limited to just a few prominent incidents. In fact, 117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones were recorded up to November in 2018.
Gatwick was also the scene of a near miss with a drone last summer that put 130 lives at risk, and the airport was also closed for around 20 minutes back in 2017 due to drone activity nearby.
Other Countries – Drones Also A Problem
The UK is by no means the only country suffering problems caused by drones being flown near airports / in the path of aircraft. For example, back in 2017, a remotely piloted drone struck a Skyjet turboprop passenger plane as it made its approach to land at Jean Lesage Airport in Quebec, Canada, flying at a height of about 450 metres / 1,500 feet and at an estimated 3,000 metres from the runway at the airport. Thankfully, only minor damage was caused to the aircraft which was carrying 8 passengers and was able to land safely.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Drones are part of a new industry where the technology and products have been developing before the law has had an opportunity to catch up. Drones clearly have many productive, value-adding, and innovative business uses, and they have been tested and tipped for wider use by brands such as Amazon for parcel deliveries. A move towards autonomous vehicles and new transport technologies means that drones currently have a bright future when used responsibly and professionally. The fact that drones are widely and easily available (with minimal restrictions) to individuals as well as companies, as shown by the many aircraft near misses, and the huge disruption and cost of incidents such as the one at Gatwick in December 2018, indicate that most people would now welcome the introduction of regulations and the investment in technology that contribute to public safety. It is important, however, that any new laws take account of the rights of the majority of responsible drone users, and don’t restrict the commercial potential of drones.