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Propwash #7 - How a UFO sighting shut down a major airport and drones were blamed
Almost everyone who works with drones strives to maintain a high reputation for safety knowing that a single bad actor can ruin it for everyone. But the world is not short of jerks. On the Christmas week of 2018, I was very angry to hear about a major drone related disruption at the Gatwick International Airport, UK. With time, I started to wonder if there was a drone at all. Here’s why.
🛫 Revisiting Gatwick
Earlier this week, a police officer doing her rounds in Glasgow, UK saw a bright light in the distance in her rear-view mirror. She tried to shake it off her trail to prevent it from following her. Alarmed and scared, she soon called her station to report that there was a drone following her.
Much to her embarrassment and dismay, after reaching her station she found out from her peers that the “drone” following her was in-fact the planet Jupiter, millions of miles away.
The event is funny and not very interesting in particular. However, it did remind me of what happened in Gatwick in 2018, which became the biggest drone related aviation incident in recent history. Even after two and a half years, we’re no closer to understanding exactly what happened.
Not everyone is aware of the Gatwick incident in the drone industry, so it’s worth recapping the episode to explain its ramifications on the drones and aviation. It led to aviation regulators being more cautious, installation and growth of counter-drone technology, and remains a mainstay in conversations about drone safety and policy.
The Gatwick Incident
On the night of the 19th of December 2018, a security guard at Gatwick international airport reported to the control tower about two lights he saw hovering low in the sky within the airport complex. The single runway airport was immediately shut down and all flights were diverted to other airports.
Airport security and personnel started looking for the drone that was endangering everyone’s safety. The police were called in, news outlets started covering the event closely. The flights which were in holding patterns above the airport were redirected to other airports nearby.
More than 1000 flights had to be cancelled or diverted. The airport was shut down for a total of 33 hours. Over 140,000 people who were trying to travel in the holidays were affected. The estimated loss and damages from the incident was at a whopping £50M. To put things in perspective, the last major disruption to the airport was caused by a volcanic eruption in Iceland that created ash clouds spanning continents. That was in 2010, and in 2018 we had a “drone” sighting near the airport causing a similar disruption.
Throughout those 33 hours, there were multiple reports of “drone” sightings. Every time the control room thought that things had settled down, a new report would come up further delaying the restart of airport services.
There were over 170 “drone” sightings as reported by the Sussex Police. Of these, at least 100 were termed by the police as “credible”. The funny part is that of all the reported sightings, there were zero pictures or videos.
To emphasize - There was zero photographic or video evidence from over 170 reports of “drone” sightings.
The closest photographic evidence of the “drone” was later debunked as a police helicopter from NPAS (National Police Aircraft Services). Ian Hudson, a drone enthusiast from UK who goes by @UAVHive on Twitter does a good breakdown of the image in the tweet below 👇
Following the release by Sussex Police of the #Trebor #Gatwick timeline, we have a never seen before photo taken on a 600mm zoom.
As the sightings of the alleged #drone were when it was dark it seems lights were being reported.
A local resident sent this photo. #BattleofGatwick https://t.co/uIKhvJZzSd
Teams from five different police departments were on the hunt for the culprits. They searched the perimeter and the neighbouring areas for clues. They looked for drone enthusiasts in the area and interrogated them. Mostly the search ended up with nothing.
After three days, the police apprehended a couple living a few miles away from the airport after learning that the husband was a model aircraft enthusiast. Headlines ran in major news outlets saying “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?”
The answer was no. The police had to release the couple after holding them in custody for over 36 hours. It turned out that they did not own a drone at all. The wrongly accused couple would later sue the Sussex police and get $253,000 in damages and fees. They made a statement that the police were covering up for the failure of a poor investigation.
It’s no understatement that the event was serious. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was brought in. There were rumours that a new C-UAS (Counter UAS) system would be deployed on site. It would be supplied by the Israeli company Rafael called Drone Dome, a little brother of the Iron Dome seen in action recently during the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It turned out that the Drone Dome was not ready or not available, and they RAF instead used a system called Falcon Shield developed by a UK company, Leonardo. It was installed on the 20th, on the second day of the airport shutdown and didn’t detect any drone activity in the area at the time.
After 33 hours when there were no further reports of drone sightings, the airport resumed operations. After the dust had settled, some police officers started to question if there ever was a drone at all. It has been over two years, and are we any closer? No.
Ian Hudson and many others have filed Freedom of Information(FOI) requests to get more details from the government authorities on what happened. The requests were met with half-answers and redirections. The little details that did emerge raised more questions than answers.
It’s been almost 2.5 years now, and we’re no closer to the truth. The Police are not willing to disclose enough details. Which makes many people wonder if there ever was a drone at all. This thought process was not new either, Hackaday and others asked in the week of the event -
OOOPS, DID WE JUST CLOSE AN AIRPORT OVER A UFO SIGHTING?
That’s what it was - a UFO sighting. Not the alien kind, but the boring, unidentified kind. People who have been following this closely including Ian Hudson, Gary Mortimer of sUAS news and many others including the arrested couple are strongly in support of the theory that there never was a drone.
There are many theories floating around that try to explain the events given the (lack of) evidence -
There was never a drone. The initial alarm was probably mistaken for some other object, and mass hysteria followed with multiple people claiming that they saw something.
It was a cover-up for the police not being able to resolve the issue in time.
There might have been a drone in the first sighting, but everything after that was not true. The entire event was handled improperly and all subsequent sightings were mistaken.
It was a cover-up for a cyberattack on the airport.
It was staged to bring down the share price ahead of a Gatwick share sale (a week after the drone incident, a majority stake was sold to a French airport group).
The simplest explanation is just human error. We may never know, but it is really difficult to rule out “human saw light in the sky” being misreported, exaggerated and spreading like a meme causing others to report the same.
Until now, when people saw something they couldn’t make out in the sky they had “aliens” to blame. But with the rise of drones in mainstream culture, many people would instead attribute it to drones. The meme below, posted in the Phantom Pilots forum in 2016 seems to have become real.
I can sort of understand how the police officer from Glasgow mistook the light from Jupiter to be a drone. A while back, my mom saw a strange bright light in the evening sky and thought it was a new satellite. She defaulted to thinking it was a satellite having seen ISS passes and Iridium Flares before. After realizing that it was stationary for too long, she realized it’s probably not a satellite.
Indeed, it wasn’t a satellite. It was another planet, Venus. Before the age of drones, we did not have the idea of a flying tiny object in the sky, only large planes and helicopters. Now that we have an easy mental model for a drone, and we’re used to seeing it fly around in many places, it does become the default assumption.
There are a lot more details on the story, and these two articles do a better job at providing thorough coverage and analysis:
I highly recommend reading the above if you want more reporting on the topic. Instead of providing more details, I want to talk more about how this affected the drone space.
There’s a pretty comprehensive list on Wikipedia highlighting several notable drone incidents. There’s also an interactive map that shows all drone incident reports in the USA. Even with those incidents in mind, drones have a very respectable safety record. The industry is focused on safety, and is taking multiple steps towards the same. Just recently, DJI published a good report on how their “Elevating Safety” program was a success.
Unlike other sectors in aviation, the accident fatality rate for drones is zero. The industry has been striving hard to maintain an image of safety and responsibility. The Gatwick incident was a reminder to airports to beef up their C-UAS systems, and many airports around the world did.
The incident has come up in several discussions that I’ve had with regulators and other industry members about policy and regulations. The disproportionate reaction and the effect that this incident has had irks me because it has dominated discussions for too long when it probably wasn’t involving drones at all.
Drones are new, and new is scary. Even as drones rise in popularity, the public perception of drones is still cautious. We as an industry must ensure that we show the numerous ways drones can be used for good such as search and rescue, disaster relief, medicine delivery and more.
Someone I know who doesn’t work on drones once suggested to me that perhaps what our industry needs is the kind of top PR effort seen by the likes of Coca-Cola, Big-Tobacco, etc. who’ve relied on their superior PR skills to gain public acceptance despite dubious or questionable safety/health effects.
I disagree wholeheartedly. Drones are being used for good and they are becoming more popular as a tool for creative professionals. Any artificial PR will do more harm in the long run, and we can instead focus on the good PR that drones are generating and double down on that.
🚁 Other news this week
Here are some other news from around the drone space this week that you should know about -
Blue sUAS feeling blue?
This week, Financial Times reported (paywalled link) that Department of Interior Officials were complaining that the drones were 8-14 times more expensive and did not have the same features as the Chinese drones.
The numbers didn’t add up, and the American Drone Alliance consisting of members from the blue sUAS program hit back with a reply that the claims are baseless. The FT report claimed that the average price of a drone being $2000 was high. If a $2000 drone is 8-14 times higher, then the Chinese ones should be priced around $150-250. I’m still waiting for drones to fall into that price point, and my wishes are still incomplete.
Hardware and Software
A new Y-combinator backed startup called Buoyant wants to solve delivery in rural areas using drone-blimps.
Looks like we’ll have to wait a while longer for the Mavic 3 series reports DroneDJ.
Investments and Leadership
Quantum-Systems, the makers of the Trinity and Vector UAVs, raise €10 million in funding from the European Investment Bank.
The Drone delivery/logistics company Volansi hires Will Roper- former Assistant Secretary of the US Air Force as its new CEO.
Safety, and Policy
PrecisionHawk launches a training program for electric grid inspections. As the industry matures, we’ll see more such specialized training programmes focussed on an application. That is of-course, if software doesn’t solve the problem for you like Skydio’s 3D-Scan.
❄ Drone footage of the week
Watch this spooky-yet-serene short film shot entirely by drone of the frozen Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia from Vadim Sherbakov. The title is “The Noor” which is a local word for Lake.
The NOOR - Vadim Sherbakov
Every week I also share something that’s not about drones but is hard to pass by. This week, it’s a great reminder by Roots of Progress Author, Jason Crawford to not label yourself an “optimist” or “pessimist” about the future. Instead, focus on the solution as a “solutionist”.
History teaches us how to be brutally honest about a problem and yet optimistic for a technological solution.
🏁 Wrapping up
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By Nihal Mohan
Every week, I share the most important ideas, news and insights from all over the drone space and tell you what matters.
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