A DRONE expert working at the University of Portsmouth has said the incident at Gatwick Airport is the biggest impact a small drone event has ever had in the UK.
Dr Peter Lee, director of the Security and Risk research theme at the university, said that after years of discussions about how difficult it would be to stop incidents like this happening, the recent occurrences were inevitable.
Thousands of people have faced flight delays and cancellations after drones were reportedly flying near to the airport – causing Gatwick to shut, reopen, and again shut its runway overnight.
Dr Lee specialises in the ethics and ethos of remotely piloted aircraft and explained that to shoot the drones down like many people have suggested, would have been way too dangerous.
He said: ‘I would say this is the biggest impact a small drone event has had in the UK. It was almost inevitable this would happen.
‘Drones are very fast moving. It would be very difficult for a good marksman to shoot it, and if you use a shotgun you are leaving pellets in an airfield which could be sucked in an aircraft’s engine.
‘If you use a conventional bullet it could miss but it will keep flying until it hits something.
‘So shooting is an extreme option to take.
‘There is already technology being developed to locate someone controlling a drone in this way but it’s expensive and not yet 100 per cent effective or widely-available.
‘After today there may be a drive to improve that technology and bring down its cost.’
Mr Lee said the worst thing would be if individuals or groups decide to copy the events.
He added: ‘The first potential threat has been known about for several years and it’s something I’ve written about.
‘I was part of the Department for Transport’s oversight committee which conducted a public dialogue in 2015 and 2016 about the use of drones in the UK and one of the areas discussed was threats posed by the use of drones in exactly this kind of situation.
‘It was identified how difficult it would be to prevent such an event like this and there was a major discussion around education and legislation on the subject but no matter how much of that you have, and strict rules about how close you can fly drones to airports, if someone wants to wilfully break the law then it’s difficult to stop them.
‘You’re not allowed to fly or operate a drone within one mile of an airport.
‘The dangers are that it could strike an aircraft, get sucked into the engine causing it significant damage or causing it to shut down.
‘An aircraft is at its most vulnerable in the last few 100ft before it lands and takes off, so if a drone were to affect it then it could result in heavy landings or bad damage or at worst the nightmare scenario which is a crash.
‘I know it sounds dramatic to postpone all flights but it’s one of those things where the odds against an aircraft crashing are extraordinarily small, but the consequences of that happening would be huge.
‘So clearly the airport and airlines have taken the decision not to risk that.
‘Those responsible need to be suitably punished.’
Gatwick said in a statement: ‘Gatwick Airport's runway remains unavailable because of drone sightings.
‘We have advised all airlines to cancel flights up to at least 4pm this afternoon, while keeping the situation under constant review.
‘There is significant disruption at Gatwick and our terminals are extremely busy.
‘We are prioritising the welfare of passengers during this very difficult time, and have teams across the airport looking after them as best we can.
‘We anticipate disruption to continue throughout the day and into tomorrow.
‘Any passengers due to fly today or tomorrow should not set off for Gatwick without checking flight information with their airline.
‘We are extremely disappointed that what appears to be deliberate action is affecting journeys at this important time of year.
‘We are working tirelessly with our airlines to put plans in place to recover our operation once given the go-ahead that our runway can reopen.
‘Once again we apologise for the continued disruption. Safety is our absolute priority.’