The chaos that saw 120,000 passengers unable to take off or land at Gatwick this week was the third time a drone has caused trouble at the airport in 18 months.
The runway was closed twice on the evening of July 2 last year – once for nine minutes and once for five minutes – after a drone was spotted flying close to it.
But that disruption only resulted in the diversion of just one British Airways and four easyJet flights – as well as some other planes put into holding patterns.
An easyJet plane on its final approach before landing at London Gatwick Airport this morning
Passengers wait to check in at Gatwick this morning as disruption due to the drone continues
Operations were suspended that evening from 6.10pm to 6.19pm, and again from 6.36pm to 6.41pm, after a drone was spotted on the airport’s final approach path.
Then over the summer this year, a drone was said by the UK Airprox Board to have ‘put 130 lives at risk’ after nearly hitting an aircraft approaching the airport.
The flying gadget passed directly over the right wing of the Airbus A319 as it was preparing to land at the West Sussex airport in July 2018.
The incidents will raise concerns over why ‘jamming’ systems that see radiowaves fired at drones to send them out of a controlled area are still illegal in Britain.
The length of disruption at an airport the size of Gatwick in recent days is unprecedented
Passengers try to catch some sleep as they wait for flights at London Gatwick Airport today
The method sees sensors and permanent radiowave transmitters are set up around the edge of the area, ready to bombard drones detected inside the invisible ‘fence’.
This disrupts signals between the pilot and drone, forcing it to land or travel back to where it took off. The systems have been fully effective around prisons in Guernsey.
Meanwhile aviation experts and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said the length of disruption at an airport the size of Gatwick in recent days had been unprecedented.
More than 120,000 passengers could not either take off or land at the airport from 9pm on Wednesday and throughout yesterday, before it reopened at 6am today.
Drones have caused issues for planes at Gatwick on three occasions in 18 months (file image)
Politicians debated drones in the House of Commons on July 18 last year, with Conservative MP Jeremy Lefroy warning of how drones were posing an ‘increasing threat to the lives of aircraft crew, passengers and those living under flight paths’.
He added that drones ‘encourage interest in aviation’, but there was ‘irresponsible or downright dangerous use, which poses a risk to aircraft and passengers.’
Technology that could have stopped the Gatwick drone chaos
Radiowaves can be fired at drones to send them out of a controlled area.
Sensors and permanent radiowave transmitters are set up around the edge of the area, ready to bombard any drone detected inside the invisible ‘fence’. This disrupts signals between the pilot and drone, forcing it to land or travel back to where it took off.
Such ‘SkyFence’ systems set up around prisons in Guernsey have been 100 per cent effective, according to designers at tech firm Drone Defence. So-called ‘jamming’ remains illegal in the UK.
Military-grade technology can use radiowaves and lasers to shoot drones out of the sky. The ‘Drone Dome’ system – designed in Israel and delivered to the Ministry of Defence this year – can ‘soft kill’ a drone by hitting its communications.
It can detect a drone using radars several miles away and fire radiowaves to bring it to the ground, as with the SkyFence. It can also ‘hard kill’ targets by shooting them down with a laser.
However, it has been reported that the British Government opted out of this element. The purchase was confirmed in August, although it is not known if it is ready for use.
Another drone armed with a weighted net can be deployed to take the illegal aircraft out of the sky. When an unwanted drone is detected inside a controlled area, the larger drone flies out at 20mph to track it using a camera and laser.
It can fire its net from up to 60ft away before carrying it away to safety, or allowing it to drop to the ground.
The company behind the DroneCatcher device says it can be used at airports, military bases or prisons. Having developed a prototype in 2015, the firm released a commercial version last year.
Labour MP Richard Burden had said: ‘It is not too much to expect ministers to come forward with a proper action plan for the appropriate regulation of drones?’
He added that this could ‘promote safety and at the same time safeguard the innovation that the responsible use and production of drones can provide’.
One year later, new laws came into force in July this year which banned all drones from flying above 400ft and within 1km (0.6 miles) of airport boundaries.
Drone users who flout the height and airport boundary restrictions could face an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.
Laws introduced to the Commons in May this year also mean people flying drones which weigh 250g or more will have to register with the Civil Aviation Authority.
Drone pilots will be required to take an online safety test under the new legislation, with the requirements set to come into force in November next year.
But pilots and air traffic controllers blasted ministers for failing to do enough to protect passengers from a ‘catastrophic collision’ with drones.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) described the legislation introduced in July as ‘grossly inadequate’ – warning it did little to prevent drones being flown into aircraft.
Air traffic controllers also claimed their fears had been ‘repeatedly’ dismissed and accused officials of prioritising commercial interests in the multi-billion-pound drone industry over safety.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority there have been 117 near-misses between drones and aircraft in the year to November – four times as many as 2015.
Only last week accident investigators reported how a drone came within 50ft of a Ryanair flight carrying 200 passengers as it came in to land at London Stansted in August.
Balpa described the chaos as a ‘wake-up call’ and urged that the exclusion zone is extended to 5km (3 miles), putting the UK in line with Australia and the Netherlands.
Shadow aviation minister Karl Turner said the regulations around drones were not tight enough and blamed Mr Grayling for failing to act.
‘There should be wider exclusion zones around airports – I think the law says one kilometre at the moment, it should probably be five kilometres according to the experts,’ he told BBC Two’s Newsnight.
This shows where passengers heading for Gatwick have been diverted since 9pm Wednesday
‘The Government should have brought this legislation forward, it’s been an abject failure and I blame Chris Grayling.
Trouble caused by drones at other airports
Drones have caused chaos at other airports over the past six months.
Last week, a suspected drone crashed into a passenger plane in Mexico – ripping holes into the front of the craft as it attempted to land in Tijuana.
The crew on board the Aeromexico Boeing 737-800 had to request help in order to land the mauled aircraft after hearing a ‘very strong blow’.
In October, a drone collided with a commercial aircraft as it was approaching to land in Canada.
There were six passengers and two crew on the aircraft and the drone connected with its wing, but fortunately it suffered only minor damage, allowing it to land safely at Jean Lesage Airport in Quebec City.
In June a Virgin Atlantic Boeing Dreamline avoided crashing into a drone by just 16ft (5m), in the nearest miss in British aviation history.
At the time, Virgin said: ‘It’s vital that action is taken to regulate the use of drones near airports, and we urge the government to consider further proposals.’
Two months later a drone, flying higher than the 400ft limit, came within 50ft (15m) of hitting a Boeing 737 that was landing at Stansted Airport.
‘He should have been in the House of Commons today making a statement and explaining to MPs why the Govern-ment has failed to bring this legislation forward.’
Yesterday, the Government also came under fire in the House of Lords, where an emergency question was raised on the issue.
Labour peer Lord Harris said he had been raising concerns about drones for more than two years and the government had ‘repeatedly dragged its feet’
He said technical specifications could have been introduced to enable drones to be disabled and brought safely to the ground.
The military and GCHQ have also developed techniques to be able to jam or disable drones.
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Randerson warned the incident at Gatwick demonstrated the ease with which drones could inflict ‘massive damage on our safety, security and the economy’.
She said thousands more drones would find their way into the hands of ‘untrained, unregistered users’ this Christmas before new restrictions come into force next November.
Aviation minister Baroness Sugg denied being complacent and insisted ministers would look at new laws to combat the problem.
Lady Sugg said the government had not been complacent, arguing ministers had taken ‘clear action’ by introducing new legislation.
She said: ‘We absolutely need to make sure that we introduce new laws to ensure that drones are used safely and responsibly.’
Timeline: How the drone chaos at Gatwick Airport has unfolded
After a drone caused chaos for tens of thousands of passengers at Gatwick Airport, we look at how the events have unfolded so far:
9pm – Gatwick suspends flights in and out of the airport after reports of two drones flying near the airfield. Some planes are diverted to other airports.
3am – The runway reopens
3.45am – The runway shuts again after a further report of drone sightings
10.20am – Sussex Police reveal the flying of drones close to the airfield is ‘a deliberate act to disrupt the airport’, but ‘there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror related’
12.20pm – The airport’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe says around 110,000 passengers are due to travel on Thursday, most of whom will see cancellations and disruptions.
3.50pm – The Ministry of Defence says police are in ‘ongoing discussions’ with the Army about assisting with the operation to find the drones.
5.50pm – Gatwick’s chief executive officer Stewart Wingate says the drone flights are ‘highly targeted’ and have ‘been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas’.
9.30pm – Mr Woodroofe says the airport will remain closed for the rest of the evening after drone activity was reported ‘within the last hour’.
9.30pm – Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley, of Sussex Police, says there have been more than 50 sightings of the device in the past 24 hours. He reveals that shooting down the drone is a ‘tactical option’ being considered by police.
5.58am – According to flight tracking website Flightradar24, a plane from East Midlands Airport lands at Gatwick.
6.30am – Gatwick Airport says the runway is ‘currently available’ and that a ‘limited number’ of planes are scheduled for departure and arrival.