Security

Why drone threats crippled a major UK airport

London’s Gatwick airport is slowly recovering after saboteur drone pilots shut it down for 36 hours. It’s a high-profile example of a threat that has worried security services for years, and gaps in current countermeasures. Matthew Larotonda and Paul Sandle report.

London’s Gatwick airport was shut down for 36 hours, opened back up, and then shut down again.

All because of unauthorized drone flights buzzing the place in what police called a deliberate act of sabotage.

But how could a bunch of drones shut down one of Europe’s busiest airports? Why are officials so afraid of them?

The problem lies in the damage the drones could do.

On the surface it’s a straightforward safety issue.

Traffic controllers are afraid of collisions. Even a small drone can cause serious damage if it collides with the wrong part of a plane, in the same way that pilots fear bird strikes.

On a more nefarious level, drones can also be used for surveillance by criminals or militants.

Or worse, drones can be weapons — such as these used by Islamic State in Iraq as bomb carriers.

That’s a nightmare scenario for transportation hubs, sporting events, concert halls, etc.

Hardware like this can stop it, and the British military has now deployed some of its own to Gatwick.

Reuters’ Paul Sandle knows how they’re used. They also come with their own risks.

PAUL SANDLE, REUTERS UK CORRESPONDENT,

“Security services are able to block some of the airwaves that the operator uses to pilot the drone or some of the GPS signals that the drone itself uses to navigate to its destination. Technology is available to detect drones, it uses radar and obviously radar is in place in airports but it’s not able to detect something as small as a drone. It’s used for commercial aircraft, so new systems have to be in place. They also use thermal imaging.”

“Airports are pretty reluctant to deploy some of these capabilities because they don’t want to disrupt the communications that aircraft rely on to take off and land. They don’t want to knock out an air system that’s critical to the operation of the airport itself. It’s a complex and busy environment.”

Some less complex environments like sports stadiums regularly use these countermeasures.

The Gatwick incident is a warning for places that don’t.

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