SNAPSHOT: Drone disruption at London airport highlights vulnerability of commercial aviation

On 19 December 2018, all flights to and from London Gatwick Airport were suspend after two drones were sighted flying over the runway. The incident highlights the various risks drones pose to commercial aviation. 

  INCIDENT

  • At 2103 local time on 19 December, London Gatwick Airport (LGW) the UK's second busiest suspended all flights after two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, were spotted flying over the airport's single operational runway.
  • The airport remained closed overnight and throughout 20 December, with police reporting over 50 sightings of the drones suspected to be of industrial size in 24 hours. The last sighting was at 2200 on 20 December.
  • Inbound flights were diverted to airports across the UK and beyond, including Paris and Amsterdam. All outbound flights were cancelled. In total, 350,000 passengers were affected. The total cost of the disruption is estimated to reach millions of pounds LGW alone has daily aviation-related revenues of approximately GBP1.1 million.
  • After approximately 32 hours of disruption, the airport re-opened at 0500 on 21 December. The first inbound flight China Eastern Airlines MU201 from Shanghai landed at 0558. Residual travel disruption was expected to continue throughout the day.
  • At approximately 1723 on 21 December, flights were temporarily suspended again after an unconfirmed sighting of a drone.
  • Police have yet to identify or apprehend the operator or operators of the drones. The UAVs are also unaccounted for. According to police, the act was deliberate but not terror-related. Under UK law, endangering the safety of an aircraft is a criminal offence which can carry a prison sentence of five years.
  • On 3 January 2019, both Gatwick and London Heathrow (LHR) the UK's largest airport confirmed their acquisition of military-grade equipment which can detect and jam communications between a drone and its operator. Gatwick confirmed that it had already spent GBP5 million to purchase an anti-drone system, while Heathrow said that it plans to purchase the technology. While neither airport revealed details of their respective equipment, a similar technology has been developed by Israeli company Rafael.
ANALYSIS
  • The incident highlights the vulnerability of commercial aviation to the use of UAVs, as well as a severe lack of preparedness from airport authorities and law enforcement officials to the threat.
  • The disruption demonstrates how UK regulations have not kept up with rising demand for and use of UAVs, both for commercial and personal purposes. It also reveals a lack of contingency planning and approved threat-neutralisation procedures, despite the pre-existence of technologies such as overriding and signal jamming. For instance, law enforcement officers were only given approval to shoot down the UAVs on the evening of 20 December. This option had previously been considered too dangerous due to the risk of stray bullets.
  • The incident highlights the escalating risk that UAVs pose to aircraft and airports globally. While in the UK in 2013 there were no recorded aircraft incidents involving UAVs, the figure stands at almost 120 so far this year. Many of these are near-miss incidents, in which aircraft pass close to UAVs most often when taking off or landing.
  • Passenger, cargo and large military aircraft are particularly vulnerable to collisions. Earlier this year, tests carried out by the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) revealed that even mid-sized UAVs can cause significant damage to aircraft wings when they strike aircraft moving at a high approach speed. On 12 December, an Aeromexico Boeing 737-800 struck an object thought to be a UAV on its approach to Tijuana International Airport (TIJ), in Mexico. The collision severely damaged the aircraft's nose, however the plane landed safely and without any major structural damage to the fuselage. Aircraft engines are especially vulnerable to collisions with UAVs.
  • Beyond disrupting civil aviation, UAVs pose multifaceted threats to individuals, property and critical infrastructure. In August 2018, an assassination attempt was made against Venezuelan president Nicol's Maduro. Attackers flew two UAVs carrying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) towards Maduro at a military ceremony in the capital Caracas, injuring seven soldiers. In France in July 2018, environmental activists intentionally flew a UAV into the side of a spent-fuel pool building at the Bugey nuclear power plant, approximately 32km west of the city of Lyon, to demonstrate the vulnerability of such buildings. No damage was caused to the plant.

Drone incident graph 

  FORECAST

  • In the immediate term, there is a heightened risk of copycat incidents. These would most likely take place at airports, but could also target locations where other forms of high-speed transport occur, such as motorways, or large public gatherings such as concerts or sporting events.
  • In the short- and medium-term, there will be calls for stricter regulations on the use of UAVs, particularly in the UK, where new requirements on registration with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and online safety tests will come into force in 2019. Possible additional reform could include an increase in the minimum distance that UAVs must be away from airports and airfields. The minimum distance is currently 1km. Manufacturers are also likely to be required to place geo-fencing technology which stops drones entering programmed areas on their products.
  • Companies which use UAVs for commercial purposes, such as filming or surveillance, should ensure that operators have the correct permission from domestic civil aviation authorities, and that operators follow height and distance rules. Legal teams should monitor and anticipate new guidelines and legislative developments and communicate these internally.
  • Security managers should assess how their personnel and assets would be impacted by the flying of UAVs near their sites, and consider developing contingency planning in the event of an incident.