Last updated 20/12/18 @ 14:09 (GMT): The UK’s second biggest airport has now been closed for over 16 hours with ‘drones’ being named by the airport, press and media as the root-cause, but at this time there has not been a single photo or video presented to prove beyond doubt that the culprit(s) is drone.
So what has happened at Gatwick?
Reports that Gatwick Airport was to be closed emerged yesterday following reports of a ‘drone’ (one or more) hovering in or around the airfield.
Subsequent reports of additional sightings arose as the evening progressed which extended the closure time of the airfield, resulting in the redirection of hundreds of incoming flights and cancellation of scheduled outbound flights.
At this time Gatwick Airport has announced that it will remain closed until 18:00 this evening.
Where is the evidence of it being a drone?
Despite multiple reports of the suspect being a drone, no credible photos or video evidence has so far been presented to prove that the responsible airborne object is a drone. Reliance only on eye-ball sightings have led to drone-related speculation which has since spread across social media, press and news reports.
One video (below) did arise from a passenger sat onboard a plane, suggesting that he had “spotted a Gatwick drone” from his window, but the video clearly shows a large airborne aircraft with a powerful search-light attached to it, it is moving slowly around the area and is far more likely to have been one of the two helicopters deployed to search the Gatwick perimeter.
Following the share of the above video, numerous media and news outlets tweeted in response, desperate to be able to utilize the video on their own platforms. Unfortunately it would appear that none have taken the time to analyse the content, simply instead choosing to use the video as ammunition to peddle the sensationalist ‘drone’ theory.
According to the airport, “several observations” have been made to confirm that the airborne object is an “industrial drone” and yet still no evidence has been presented. We find it hard to believe that upon sighting the speculated drone that no official has been able to photograph or video it using their phone or other device.
Is a consumer drone capable of this?
Modern consumer drones such as the DJI Mavic are capable of flight times of up to 25+ minutes, flying remotely at a range of over 7km, however a technology known as geo-fencing utilises virtual ‘No Fly Zones’ via software to prevent drones from even launching in areas classified as such. It is possible to override this software by flashing older generation or custom firmware onto these drones, but this is not easily achieved.
Non-DJI drones such as the GoPro Karma, Parrot Anafi and custom built enterprise drones are not necessarily subject to NFZ technology and so could be flown in contravention of local restricted airspace.
Battery life generally provides around 25+ minutes of flight time which can be extended by landing and switching battery, however these accessories are not cheap and owners rarely have more than 2-3 batteries available to them. Charging batteries takes around 2 hours, therefore to consistently fly drones in the area for a 16hr+ period would require constant charging and battery swapping.
The recently launched DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise does have a spot-light accessory but is subject to NFZ technology and the drone itself is not widely available at this time.
If its not a drone, then what is it?
Since the increase in popularity of affordable consumer drones, the number of encounters speculated by the press and media have increased. Drones have become a scapegoat for irrational speculation and scaremongering.
In the past we have seen genuine instances of drones impacting helicopters, as well as speculation of sightings by pilots near Heathrow, but in many common scenarios drones have not been the cause and those reports have disappeared quietly and discreetly without followup.
Plastic bags, silver helium balloons, birds and even GA aircraft have been confused in the past as being a ‘drone’, and with the festive season upon us even sky lanterns could be accused, therefore we may never know but in order for the drone community to survive it is important that this story has an ending, whether it be the capture of a drone operator and evidence of the flight, or admission by Gatwick Airport that they got it wrong on this occasion.
And if it is a drone?
If there were indeed a drone (or drones) flying at Gatwick then we will be the first to condemn the drone operator for irresponsible, selfish and careless use of an RC aircraft, an act which will impact our love of this hobby, sport and pastime.
Many RC enthusiasts have been flying aircraft for 30+ years, the rise of autonomous multi-rotors has eased the entry into the sport/hobby but also led to an increase in irresponsible use.
A warning to drone operators, fly your aircraft safely and responsibly because if this incident does genuinely involve a drone, then the operators/owners will be unlikely to see anything this Xmas besides the door of his cell in a Police Station.
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