Gatwick Airport In UK was closed to air traffic for more than 24 hours — at the peak of the holiday season, no less — amid repeated incursions by flying gizmos of the sort that might be found in a box in a hobbyist shop.
“This hasn’t happened anywhere in the world before,” said Richard Gill, the founder and chief executive of Drone Defence, which helps institutions guard their perimeters against drones. The Gatwick shutdown scrambled hundreds of flights, stranded tens of thousands of passengers and reduced the British government to playing cat-and-mouse with the drones. Controlled, perhaps, by little more than an iPad, they were repeatedly sent over the runway of the country’s second-largest airport in what officials called a “deliberate act.”
On Thursday, about 20 police units searched the perimeter of the airfield for the drones’ operators. By nightfall, the government said it would deploy the military in a bid to reopen the airport, though it was not clear what its role would be. Police sharpshooters were spotted at Gatwick, though officials at one point had precluded that option, citing the risk of a stray bullet hitting someone.
With the authorities still at a loss over what to do, the episode was proving not only a humiliation for aviation officials but also the starkest evidence to date of how vulnerable airports across the world are to the readily available flying devices. “Over 90 percent of airports in the world are unprepared for drones,” said Tim Bean, the founder and chief executive of Fortem Technologies, which is testing a drone defense system on several American runways. “Airports, stadiums, borders, oil and gas refineries — they spend a lot of money on ground security, but I think they now need to think about their airspace security.”
The number of aircraft scares involving drones recorded by the British government has shot up to more than 100 this year; there were none in 2013. In Mexico and Canada, planes recently survived collisions with what appeared to be drones.
The authorities have so far released little information about the type of drones that were buzzing Gatwick, though airport officials said they captured surveillance footage of them. “As yet, the drone has not been identified,” the Sussex Police said in a statement.