Are we sitting ducks waiting for the next major drone incident to occur?

Aerial view of Stansted airport Picture: STANSTED

Aerial view of Stansted airport Picture: STANSTED - Credit: Archant

The drone that flew over Gatwick airport this week caused Christmas misery for thousands of passengers, and experts in our region are warning it may not be an isolated incident.

Stansted Airport has also had to face its own drone dramas in recent times. On August 17, a drone flying more than 20 times the allowed height came within 50 ft of a Boeing 737 approaching a runway at Stansted.

The UK Airprox Board, which assesses air safety, rated the risk of collision as “the highest possible”.

A spokesman for Stansted refused to be drawn into speculation on the Gatwick drone incident, and what it means for the aviation industry.

But Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling described the latest incident as “a new kind of attack” that we are going to have to make sure we are prepared for. “One of the things I intend to do very quickly is to convene discussions across all of our airports,” he said on Radio Four’s Today programme. “There are some systems beginning to be introduced in some airports around the world that can have an impact on this, but there is no single solution. We’ve had to assemble a variety of measures to make sure things are safe.”

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Ben Thompson, managing director of the Lowestoft-based Drone Survey Group, which uses drones to gather data, believes the motives of the pilot of the drones operating over Gatwick were “vindictive.”

“He must have had a multitude of batteries to cause that much disruption to keep flying for so long,” he said. “I think the government should step up its game with legal repercussions, they should go in hard and early to deter people. The return you get from gathering data using drones is massive, and can help society dramatically in endless ways, but hobbyists need to be restricted. I would have no problem in registering all of my drones.

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“There have been movements forward from manufacturers in terms of updating air maps to show drone users where the no fly zones are, there are apps too that can tell you this information, and I welcome all of that. Its about getting that message through to the public.”

According to retail management software provider Vend, sales of drones and virtual reality products have increased by 74 per cent in 2018, making them one of the most Christmas presents this season.

Mr Thompson is concerned that the risk of drones causing flight disruption will go up in the future, “because there are more drones out there in society”. “There is a grey, woolly area of the law and drone users don’t know how hard the law will come down on them if their drones do stray near to an airport - they don’t understand the repercussions,” he said. “But this incident at Gatwick will make some drone users more wary of straying near to airports in the future.”

Former Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell has had reservations about drone usage for many years; in January 2015, he urged then Home Secretary, Theresa May, to review regulations on drones in a parliamentary question.

Sir Bob, who was a member of the Defence Select Committee during his time in the House of Commons, had seen drones in use by the British Army during visits to Afghanistan during his time on the committee.

He said: “It became clear to me that there were very good military uses for drones and there were some civilian businesses like surveying and aerial photography where they would be very useful.

“But I felt all drones should be registered, like firearms, so the authorities knew who had access to them - that would make incidents like that at Gatwick much less likely.”

Where else can’t drones fly?

Airlines aren’t the only area drones are banned from entering. As well as prisons and government-sensitive sites, such as BT’s Adastral Park in Suffolk where there is a cybersecurity centre, drones are banned from flying within a kilometre of RAF Lakenheath, including the public aircraft viewing area.

The American air base today released a video reiterating the rules on drone flying as a warning to anyone receiving one as a Christmas gift.

A US Air Force spokesman assigned to RAF Lakenheath said: “In the interest of safety and security, and in accordance with the United Kingdom’s Air Navigation Order 2018, RAF Lakenheath is a protected aerodrome. This means that drone use is prohibited on our installation as well as within one kilometre of our perimeter.”

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