Gatwick Airport has spent last night and much of today shut down as a result of drones being flown near and over the runways. This is something of a problem for the country’s second largest airport. There’s a much bigger problem here though, which is that we can see that this could become – is likely to become – a favourite terrorist stratagem.
For don’t forget what a terrorist is actually trying to do – make it too expensive for us not to accede to their demands. Sure, this is most often expressed as deaths, something we all fear. But economic costs work too – work better often enough. And if someone can close down a major airport, affect tens of thousands of passengers, by the deployment of a $500 drone then why wouldn’t that become a tactic of choice?
Tens of thousands of passengers have been disrupted by drones flying over one of the UK’s busiest airports. Gatwick’s runway has been shut since Wednesday night, as devices have been repeatedly flying over the airfield. Sussex Police said it was not terror-related but a “deliberate act” of disruption, using “industrial specification” drones.
The reason for the shutdown is obviously that such drones are dangerous. 400 tonnes of aircraft hitting a drone at 300 mph and up can cause a lot of damage. Enough damage, perhaps, that the plane stops moving at 300 to 500 mph shortly after hitting the ground.
Yet this is not an unforeseen event. It was inevitable. I’ve both written about the risk and warned an international airports conference in 2015 that this was “a clear and present danger” to their operations. Now the UK’s second-busiest airport is closed and demonstrably helpless in the face of a small piece of flying technology weighing much the same as a bag of sugar. Drones have been used before to disrupt airports. In Dubai it’s become almost commonplace – and there are frequent incursions at the UK’s smaller airports. The only surprise to date is that there hasn’t yet been a serious incident in UK airspace – as happened with a Boeing 738-800 belonging to Aeroméxico on 12 December on the final approach to Tijuana in Mexico.
The thing is, well, yes, changing technology changes threats.
The chaos at Britain’s second-biggest airport, which left thousands of passengers stranded at the start of the holiday season getaway, was a case of a disruptive technology at work: Flights had to be halted after drones were found flying in the vicinity of London Gatwick. There’s a strong case for regulating them more strictly, and for keeping them out of hobbyists’ hands
That’s also the wrong solution.
Yes, obviously enough, flying drones over an airport will cause costly delays. This will be an advantage to those who wish to call attention to their desires. We can even think of low level blackmail – pay us or we’ll fly our drones over your runway – as a result. And we can definitely think of terrorists deciding to cripple transport systems by this usage.
Banning the hobby use of drones is of course the wrong solution. Banning – as we already do – the wrong use of drones seems reasonable enough. But never underestimate the ability of the prodnoses and wowsers to justify the reduction in our liberty.