They’re Back! Drones Briefly Bring Reopened Gatwick Airport To A Grinding Halt Again

Authorities at Gatwick Airport in the United Kingdom only got only a brief respite from small unmanned aerial systems disrupting services, despite the deployment of U.K. military forces with sophisticated counter-drone equipment. Less than two and a half hours after re-opening the main runway this afternoon, new sightings of remotely piloted vehicles shut down the airport’s operations again. Thankfully for holiday travelers, this latest disruption was much shorter.

Reports that Gatwick was in the midst of a “ground stop” first began to emerge at around 5:20 PM local time. Plane spotters using only fight tracking software had noticed inbound planes in longer than usual holding patterns and subsequently were able to see them begin diverting to other airports. Gatwick had only resumed flight operations at 3:00 PM after drones first brought everything to a halt on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

“We have currently suspended airfield operations as a precaution due to a suspected drone sighting,” a spokesperson for the airport subsequently told Sky News. Small drones can present a significant safety hazard to air traffic, we at The War Zone explained in our piece on the initial drone incident yesterday, which had shut down operations for more than 20 hours causing major disruptions.

By around 6:30 PM, Gatwick had once again reopened. “The military measures we have in place at the airport have provided us with reassurance necessary to re-open our airfield,” Airport authorities said in an official post on Twitter.

At present, the perpetrator or perpetrators still remain at large, though they face jail time under U.K. law, which bans flying drones within just over half a mile of an airport perimeter. Sussex Police, which had deployed officers armed with conventional firearms to the scene, had reached out to the U.K. military on Dec. 20, 2018, who, in turn, deployed personnel to assist in countering the rogue unmanned aerial systems.  

The U.K. Ministry of Defense declined to say what support it had provided, but pictures have emerged showing uniformed individuals manning what appeared to be the Israeli defense contractor Rafael’s Drone Dome defense system. The United Kingdom announced it had purchased Drone Dome in August 2018. Military and law enforcement groups around the world have been investing significant resources in an attempt to begin countering the threat of small, remotely-piloted vehicles on and off the battlefield.

Counter-drone systems in place at Gatwick on Dec. 21, 2018., AP

Drone Dome features a number of compact, active-electronically scanned array radars to detect and track drones in over a highly localized area. This information then cues a separate, traversable system that features a radio-frequency jammer to scramble the control link between the unmanned aerial system and its operator and an imaging system for visual identification of the target. A solid-state laser that can burn a hole through small drones is also now an option for the system. 

Depending on the exact model of drone in question, a disruption of the remotely-piloted aircraft’s link with the control unit on the ground could lead it to fall out of the sky or attempt to return to its point of origin. You can read more about the growing number of different counter-drone systems available, and their limitations, here and here.

Other drone-detection systems have also been deployed to Gatwick Airport, including this mysterious system, which looks like something akin to an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter’s mast-mounted high-frequency radar installed on a vehicle with a telescoping mast. Something like this would be well suited for detecting small drones even in an urban area. 

Needless to say, this is yet another major disruption for Gatwick, the United Kingdom’s second busiest airport, on a Friday that will be a long Christmas weekend for many people. Over 100,000 travelers were already reportedly impacted by the hours-long closure yesterday, causing significant economic damage.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

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