Mystery Drone Still on the Loose at Gatwick Airport, But Flights Resume Anyway [Updated]

Police officers and other people stand near equipment on the rooftop of a building as the runway is reopened at London Gatwick Airport on December 21, 2018 in London, England.
Photo: Getty Images

Flights have resumed at London’s Gatwick Airport after a full day of cancellations yesterday due to a mysterious drone that was spotted repeatedly in the area. Flying drones near an airport is illegal because flights are unable to take off and land due to possible collisions. The British military was even called out to search for the drone operator, but they still have no idea who’s behind this deliberate disruption of a major transportation hub.

It’s still unclear what kind of drone or drones may be the problem, though the local police have announced that the “devices used are of an industrial specification.” No clear pictures of the drone have been released.

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Other airports around the world are on high alert because if this is a coordinated disruption it obviously doesn’t take much to put an entire airport out of commission. It appears that all you need is a drone with a sufficiently long range to not get caught.

“This is an unprecedented issue. This isn’t a Gatwick Airport issue. It’s not even a UK issue. It’s an international issue,” Gatwick’s chief executive Chris Woodroofe said today after flights resumed, according to the Guardian.

“We have been working with technology providers ourselves for the last 12 months but stood here today, there is no commercially available airport licensed proven technology that I could implement,” Woodroofe continued.

But police are reportedly trying to use radio signal jammers, just the same, in an effort to stop the drones. The airport is crawling with more police and military than usual, as would be expected. And there have been calls to just “shoot down” the drone, though that’s much more involved than it seems. First you have to catch it.

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From the Evening Standard:

The decision that it was safe to resume flying was taken after police, Army and RAF specialists lined up an armory of counter measures. They included a hi-tech tracking system of the kind used in the struggle to liberate Mosul in northern Iraq, deployed in tandem with “drone killer” equipment that can disable them.

New electronic jammers and police snipers armed with Heckler & Koch rifles also form part of the defenses to stop the rogue drone operators threatening the airport again. Britain has been a leader in using electronic jamming systems — particularly in detecting and taking out improvised explosive devices — in Afghanistan.

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Despite the fact that flights have resumed, there are still significant delays and cancellations at Gatwick. As of 12:20pm local time, 7:20am Eastern time, 91 of 412 scheduled arrivals to Gatwick have already been cancelled and 64 of 371 departures to Gatwick have taken place.

People line up after cancelled flights at Gatwick Airport cause confusion on December 20, 2018
Photo: AP
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Who’s behind the disruption? Your guess is as good as anyone’s, it would seem. Some believe that it’s domestic actors like British environmentalists. Others speculate that it could be a state actor like China or Russia testing out what it would take to shut down an airport. If it’s the latter we now know that the answer is “it doesn’t take much.”

Authorities are encouraged by the fact that there hasn’t been a drone sighting since before 10:00pm last night local time. “We have made a lot of progress overnight, obviously working hard with our partners and other forces and the airport authority,” Sussex Police official Steve Barry told the Evening Standard.

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“We are in a much better position today. We’ve got a number of lines of inquiry and we are quite positive in terms of the way that we are progressing the investigation.”

But the pilot’s union is understandably concerned that the authorities have yet to find the culprit. The union said in a tweet this morning that it “remains extremely concerned at the risk of a drone collision. It is possible that the rogue drones may go undetected around the perimeter or could obstruct the flight paths outside the immediate detection zone.”

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Passengers are understandably upset about the delays, as the weekend before Christmas is one of the busiest times to travel all year. Whoever’s behind the interruption could face up to life in prison, according to British authorities.

[Evening Standard and The Guardian and Sky News]

Update, 12:51pm ET: The Associated Press is reporting that the airport has been shut down again after a sighting of the drone around 12:10ET:

An airport spokeswoman says flights at London’s Gatwick Airport have been suspended again because of a “suspected drone sighting.”

The shutdown came roughly 11 hours after flights had resumed Friday morning at Britain’s second-busiest airport.

British Police and transport officials had said that extra security measures had been put in place to prevent drones from intruding on the airport.

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There are still no clear pictures of the thing though.

Update, 1:45pm: And flights have resumed again:

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What are these “military measures”? We’re not quite sure yet.

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About the author

Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog