gatwick airport

Government announces plans to prevent further drone chaos

Image credit: reuters

The UK government is to extend drone exclusion zones around airports and grant the police new powers to prevent drone-related chaos such as that seen at Gatwick Airport before Christmas.

Sightings of drones near Gatwick forced flights to be cancelled between December 19 and 21, affecting more than 1,000 flights and 140,000 passengers in the largest disruption to the airport in nearly a decade. Although two local residents were arrested, the pair was released without charge. Sussex Police has said that it is continuing to investigate sightings from 115 witnesses, including a pilot, airport staff and police officers, although no further arrests have been made.

The severe disruption led lawmakers and commentators to discuss how easily such significant inconvenience could be caused using readily available drone technology and how these incidents could be prevented in the future.

Speaking in parliament on Monday, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announced that the drone-exclusion zones around airports would be extended and police granted new powers to clamp down on these incidents in the future.

Grayling described the drone use at Gatwick as “deliberate, irresponsible and calculated, as well as illegal.”

“I’m very clear that when caught, those responsible should face the maximum possible custodial sentence for this hugely irresponsible criminal act,” he said

The drone-exclusion zones around airports currently measure one kilometre in radius. This will be significantly extended to 5km, with additional extensions around runways to be aligned with current controlled-traffic airspace.

Grayling added that operators of drones weighing between 250g and 20kg will be required to formally register and complete an online drone pilot competency test. Police forces will also be awarded extra powers to combat misuse of drones: police officers will be able to land and seize drones and search premises for drones from 30 November 2019 and officers will be able to issue fixed-penalty notices for minor drone offences. Drone pilots refusing to land their vehicle or show their registration when requested by a police officer could be fined £100.

Grayling added that the drone incident at Gatwick was solved by “some smart and innovative use of technology”, but did not explain what this involved, citing security reasons. The Home Office will begin to test new counter-drone technology for use at airports as well as in prisons, given the reports of drones being used to airdrop drugs and other forbidden cargo to prisoners.

The minister’s announcements follow a consultation on the use of drones, which began in July 2018.

“I am clear the government is taking action to ensure that passengers have confidence their journeys will not be disrupted in future, aircraft can safely use our key transport hubs and criminals misusing drones can be brought to justice,” he said.

Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald responded with derision, remarking on Grayling’s “dithering and delay” and stating that: “Announcing the end of a consultation exercise doesn’t constitute action, nor does it go any way to restoring confidence in [Grayling’s] capabilities.”

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