See an outline of our BBC Radio Berkshire interview this morning on the recent drone incident at Gat

Just been interviewed on the Andrew Peach show on BBC Radio Berkshire ‏re the recent criminal act of flying a drone close to an airport (Gatwick) and its aircraft.

It is against the law to fly any drone within 1 km of an airport or aerodrome’s boundaries. Anyone doing so is being totally irresponsible and putting lives at risk, as well as committing a criminal offence. Flouting these restrictions could result in an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison or both.

The complete chaos caused by this safety breach is also inconveniencing tens of thousands of air passengers and costing business hard earned revenue.

Even a small part of a drone could potentially put an aircraft at risk, anything that has potential to collide with an aircraft especially its windscreen or get in to an aircraft engine could seriously damage an aircraft and put lives or the pilots, passengers & those on the ground at risk.

Furthermore a drone carrying LiPo batteries, that burn fast and hot, are serious risks to aircraft engines - if this is what can happen when a bird gets in an aircraft engine then think what would happen with large chunks of metal, plastic and the drone’s LiPo batteries.

Let alone the consequences of someone operating with malicious or terrorist intent.

There are potentially technical ways to stop drones flying near an airport:

Signal jamming – it is theoretically possible to block a drone’s signal in a given area, however this is not going to be straight forward given all the vital hi-tech equipment that is contained in an airport.

Hacking – again it is technically possible to hack in to a drone and take control of the drone in question.

Geo-fencing – many modern, commercially available drones come with in-built restrictions on where they can fly ie within 1 km of an airport for example. However many of the drones in private hands are older models / 2nd-hand market, cheaper drones and self-builds that may not contain these safeguards.

Drone-catchers & birds of prey - there are drone-catchers that can be deployed to bring down illegally flown drones, essentially dropping or dragging a large net over / in the path of the offending drone. Birds of prey have also been used to the same effect, catching the drone in the birds tallons. I am not sure of the effectiveness of the latter approach as a drone's blades can do significant damage to anything that comes into contact with its blades.

Firearms - and as in the case of the incident at Gatwick, armed police have been seen near the runway as part of the hunt for the illegally flown drone(s) and their operator(s)

Sadly, anyone operating outside the law may be able to turn off or interfere with any in-built safety systems or simply turn off the Global Positioning System (GPS) which holds the location-based data which could potentially identify the pilot’s location / identity.

In terms of policing drone activity, responsibility is with the CAA for matters relating to air safety, the police for criminal activity and the Information Commissioner’s Office for breaches of data protection (arising from on-board cameras).

So how do you trace the operator of a drone? It’s not easy currently. If you can seize the drone it may be possible to review the GPS data to identify the pilot and / or his location. Theoretically the pilot should have the drone in line of site, but there is nothing to stop a pilot flying the drone at a great distance to try to avoid detection. This is dangerous in itself as the pilot can’t see what the drone is flying near (other than the camera view) where it can be difficult to judge distance via the monitor alone and the drone’s signal could be interfered with or fail and the pilot could loose control of the drone completely, resulting in its eventual if not immediate crashing to the ground - & hopefully not injuring anyone in the process. But again anyone operating outside the law will simply disregard these safety considerations and any rules.

There are plans, and the ideal would be, to have every single drone registered. Currently is out for consultation and is due to be a requirement from November 2019 but is likely to be limited to drones over a certain weight and there are the usual issues of enforcement. There would also be issues again with cheap illegal drones and the second hand and self-build drone market.

I don’t doubt that there are a few incidents where individuals have acquired a drone and misguidedly decided to fly a drone in inappropriate places (airports / aerodromes, other sensitive sites or crowds, for example) but as such drone incidents are increasingly reported this misguided approach seems an increasingly less likely explanation for such incidents. Therefore we can only assume these are deliberate breaches of the law if not something entirely more sinister.

Clearly the operator(s) of these drones are working hard to interfere with operations at Gatwick. With typical battery life of 20 mins, to keep drones airborne for 10 hours or so the operators are either extremely well prepared with a huge no of batteries or access to power sources to re-charge on the move, multiple drones and possibly multiple pilots - all making identification extremely difficult.

But these criminals need to be caught not just to restore order to Gatwick's operations and make the area around Gatwick safe for not just those in the airport but also fore residents in the area. But also for the offenders to be seen to be dealt with to the upmost rigour of the law to both aid awareness of the risks of this kind of activity and demonstrate that breaking these rules does lead to serious consequences for the offenders.

ANYONE thinking about flying a drone needs to remember that:

  • They are responsible for their drone at all times

  • Must keep their drone in clear line of site at all times

  • Stay below 400 feet (120 metres)

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions (ie know how to use your drone – for example know how to land it safely before you take-off! And understand it’s safety functions and limitations)

  • Remain 150 feet (50 metres) from people and property and 500 feet (150 metres) from crowds & built up areas

  • Stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields – DO NOT fly within 1km of aircraft, airports and airfields

For information on how to fly safe see the CAA's Dronesafe code