Emerging Tech

Drones force one of the world’s busiest airports to suspend all flights

One of the world’s busiest airports was forced to suspend or divert all flights on Wednesday night over safety concerns when two drones were spotted flying close to the airfield.

The incident, which occurred at Gatwick Airport in south-east England, started just after 9 p.m. local time following “multiple reports” of two remotely controlled multi-rotor copters flying “over the runway,” Chris Woodruff, Gatwick’s chief operating officer, told the BBC.

It took six hours before the air space was deemed safe, but a short time after that, at 3.45 a.m., another sighting forced the airport to once again halt all flights. At 8 a.m. on Thursday the airport was still closed, with up to 40 flights so far canceled.

Within minutes of the original report on Wednesday night, all of Gatwick’s incoming flights were suspended or diverted while police tried to track down the operators of the rogue drones.

The disruption saw numerous flights diverted to other airports across the U.K. and even to neighboring France, while thousands of outbound passengers at Gatwick were left stuck on planes on the tarmac or waiting inside terminal buildings.

Gatwick — the U.K’s second busiest airport — posted several tweets apologizing for the incident and, with the airport still closed and many planes now out of position, advised anyone flying from the airport to check the status of their flight before leaving home.

A tweet 11 hours after the first drone sighting confirmed that the airport remained closed:

Wednesday night’s incident is the most serious yet where drones have caused disruption to an airport’s operations. Aviation experts fear that the safety of passengers and crew would be put at risk if a drone got sucked into an engine, or collided with another part of the aircraft.

This latest episode is particularly unusual as the reported sightings point to two drones flying near the airport, suggesting two drone pilots were operating together. Similar cases almost always involve a single drone.

Gatwick Airport again

This isn’t the first time that Gatwick Airport has been forced to halt flights because of drone sightings. In an incident in 2017, it suspended operations for a total of 14 minutes, but with so many flights coming in and out of the busy airport, the disruption was widespread and costly. Wednesday’s incident, however, is far more serious in terms of disruption.

The U.K.’s National Air Traffic Services, the country’s main air navigation service provider, released a video that showed the extent of the disturbance caused by the 2017 incident, giving an insight into the sort of challenges air traffic controllers face when rogue drones fly into restricted zones. The video uses computer graphics to visualize the disruption as air traffic controllers work to reroute planes that were scheduled to land at Gatwick.

While most owners of consumer drones fly their machines responsibly, it seems that a small minority are intent on causing trouble at restricted  locations such as airports.

Such incidents have spawned a whole new industry, with a growing number of tech companies developing technology designed to take down rogue drones quickly and efficiently. Gatwick Airport, like any airport around the world, clearly needs an effective solution in place sooner rather than later.

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