Ooops, Did We Just Close An Airport Over A UFO Sighting?

Picture this: it’s late in the evening on a freezing cold, dark, and windy December night in southern England, and an airport worker at Gatwick — London’s second international airport — sees something fly past in the gloom above the floodlights. The weather and darkness makes it difficult to see what the object was, but the report is phoned in to security. What was it? A flock of birds? A piece of plastic litter caught by the wind and blown through the night? In this case, the call is recorded as a drone. Because the magic D-word has been uttered, a security plan swings into action, the airport is put on a high state of readiness, and flights are suspended.

Gatwick by night, on an evening far less inclement than last week. News Oresund [CC BY 2.0].
Gatwick by night, on an evening far less inclement than last week. News Oresund [CC BY 2.0].
Thousands of people across the site are put on alert, watching for the drone. And of course, the drone reports roll in, and the story takes on a life of its own. People who have no idea what a drone looks like in the air are now expecting to see one, so of course when a flock of birds or a plastic bag caught by the wind crosses their peripheral vision they too are convinced that it is the drone. Night turns into day, there is a lull in the reports so the airport re-opens, only to be closed again following a fresh spate of sightings. Flights are diverted all across the country, and tens of thousands of passengers are stranded in the terminals.

No, it's not a speck of dirt on your screen, it's a drone! BBC (Fair use)
No, it’s not a speck of dirt on your screen, it’s a drone! BBC (Fair use)

There follows three days of airport closure drama. No photos emerge despite almost every one of the many thousands of people on the site having a camera phone from which they are Tweeting about the queues in the terminal. There is a grainy video, but it is indistinct, and crucially it doesn’t have anything in it that is identifiable as Gatwick. Meanwhile the police are frustrated in their search for the drone operators, who like their drone, prove difficult to pinpoint

During the third night a pair of arrests are announced, a local couple. The police have saved the day, the culprits are under lock and key. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, the airport re-opens, and that’s the end of that. Except of course it isn’t, because inconveniently the pair are found to be blameless and released. When pressed during an interview, a police spokesman then makes the embarrassing admission that there is a possibility that there may never have been a drone at all.

You Couldn’t Make It Up

If these are the drone parts they've found, they're doing it wrong. Francis Wood [CC BY-SA 3.0]
If these are the drone parts they’ve found, they’re doing it wrong. Francis Wood [CC BY-SA 3.0]
You might imagine that this was the fictional plot of a thriller novel, but sadly not. All of the above is a tale of the last few days of events in the British news, save for most of the first paragraph which is our guess at how the first drone sightings may have happened. At the time of writing there remains the possibility that there could have been a drone over Gatwick, but given the current dearth of evidence it is one that seems tenuous. There are reports of drone wreckage, but since readers with long memories will recall UK police once identified RepRap parts as a 3D printed gun we’ll wait until we see it before we call it that.

If there was indeed a drone then of course we would like to see its operators brought to justice forthwith. But what concerns us at Hackaday are the implications the episode could still have for those of our community with an interest in multirotors. The usual clamour was made for Government to do something about it, and we know that would have meant a fresh set of onerous regulations for responsible multirotor owners while doing nothing about the criminals, because of course criminals have little regard for laws.

So if we are to glean anything from this sorry mess, we must examine it from several angles. Why is there a lack of drone detection technology in place? How should drone reports initially be treated and investigated on the ground? How should they be dealt with in official inquiries, and how then should lawmakers see them? This will inevitably have a British flavour to it because of the incident in question, but the points are just as valid worldwide.

When a Drone Report Comes In, We Need a Reliable Way to Evaluate It

An oft-shared drone identification guide for airline pilots, of uncertain provenance (phantompilots.com).

When we are told something new, it passes a process of evaluation in our minds. We look at the source, and weigh up the story itself. If a guy with crazy hair in the street tells us that the aliens have landed and are controlling the Prime Minister with a ray gun, it will probably be discounted. But if Hackaday tells us that someone has hacked a VGA chipset to work as a software-defined radio we’re guessing most of you would be very interested indeed.

When a fresh drone incident is reported it appears that this evaluation process has historically been defective. We have previously discussed official incident reports that come with no physical evidence of a drone, but contain descriptions of drones with capabilities unmatched even by jet fighter aircraft. It seems like any eyewitness report in which the culprit is named as a drone is automatically taken at face value no matter how unlikely it may be. The fact that a report may have come from a pilot is sometimes mentioned as a boost to its credibility, but that is a false assumption. A pilot who is not familiar with either how drones appear from a distance or what the capabilities of a drone are in the air can only be considered an unreliable witness, because while they may know a lot about aircraft they lack the required expertise for this judgement. So what can be done to help boost the quality of reporting and to immediately highlight credible reports while requiring more for dubious ones?

In the case of a near miss in open airspace there may be little effect on ground-based facilities, but at an airport such as Gatwick there can be no chances taken by the authorities. A drone collision on an aircraft on final approach could cause hundreds of fatalities, so upon receipt of a report they must have had little choice but to close the runways. There appears to have been a lack of drone detection technologies in place at Gatwick which means that the only source available to the airport would have been the eyewitnesses themselves, and since we have amply demonstrated the potential for eyewitness reports being unreliable then the current confusion becomes an inevitability. It is imperative that more reliable detection technologies be fitted or developed if necessary. This is especially true when precautionary shut-downs stretch past minutes or hours into world-news-making delays as happened in this instance.

Competent Police Investigations and Responsible Journalism on Drone Reports

The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]
The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]
Once an incident has started and news of it emerges there is a consequent effect upon members of our community. Legitimate drone fliers away from the airport will find themselves under more scrutiny, and since it is already a common tale to hear of police being called when flying is under way that means they could face harassment and wrongful arrest. Indeed though we do not know all the details of the pair arrested near Gatwick it smacks of their being arrested in a round-up of convenient local drone enthusiasts rather than as a result of meaningful investigation. That the names of the pair were leaked and they became the subject of a media frenzy further shows the danger in which they were placed, as well as the irresponsibility of the reporters who covered their plight.

Perhaps Most Importantly: We Need Accurate Official Incident Reports

Whatever happens in a drone report, whether it be an arrest or an embarrassing debacle, there will inevitably be an official incident report from the Civil Aviation Authority, the regulator of British civilian airspace. This will form the official record of the event, and thus should strive to be as accurate as possible, but here the process falls short for the final time. There appears to be no evaluation step performed on the available evidence and no requirement for physical proof. So if an eyewitness reports behaviors about the drone that no drone ever built could possibly be capable of, it is solemnly recorded as fact. Our previous article on this subject highlights multiple such accounts, and this is an important point because as the official record these reports are what informs legislators. When they make laws pertaining to drones it is imperative that their decisions are based upon accurate evidence, and it is clear that this is not the case. Given that they will no doubt be reviewing drone legislation in the wake of this fiasco it is particularly important that the investigators consult people with specialist knowledge in the field, demand physical proof rather than heresay, and most importantly question accounts that stretch credibility.

It seems obvious that the multirotor hobbyist is caught in a perfect storm of incompetent authorities, deeply flawed investigations, shoddy journalism, and clueless legislators. This incident has laid bare some of the shortcomings, and it is to be hoped that a few lessons might be learned to produce less of a debacle surrounding future drone incidents. It is still a developing story so there may be a breakthrough and the whole narrative will change, and if that turns out to be the case then we hope they find the correct perpetrator this time and send them away at Her Majesty’s pleasure for a very long time. We’re guessing though that every effort will be made to push it as far under the carpet as possible to save red faces among officialdom. As multirotor enthusiasts we must keep the issue of poor investigation alive though, for if we let it be buried once more it will come back to trouble us again.

58 thoughts on “Ooops, Did We Just Close An Airport Over A UFO Sighting?

  1. “The usual clamour was made for Government to do something about it, and we know that would have meant a fresh set of onerous regulations for responsible multirotor owners while doing nothing about the criminals, because of course criminals have little regard for laws.”

    In general, but not all criminals are created equally. The casual criminal might be more deterred than the hard-core “been through the system” criminal. Also as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, drone owner education seems to be an angle no one’s covered. It’s basically, buy it, and hope for the best.

    1. Where’s the significant harm done by drones that makes such a thing necessary? We’ve been doing just fine with RC helicopters for ages, it’s just because of tech journalism fads and buzzword twits that everyone is suddenly very concerned.

    2. Who cares what they have “regard” for? Of course criminals have a low opinion of laws, but that tells you nothing about how effective the laws are at changing the behavior of criminals.

      You know something criminals have even less regard for? Law enforcement officers. But guess what, that doesn’t stop the cops from arresting the criminals.

      If you write your laws so that they are not laws but recommendations, then yes, everybody will ignore them and it is irrelevant if you claim some of them are criminals. But if the laws are real laws that receive enforcement, then people’s “regard” for them is irrelevant. Do they perceive the enforcement as effective? If so, they’ll be discouraged to some degree.

      1. The Unipiper? No wonder they closed the airport if they thought the Unipiper was lurking about. Just look at how long it took to catch the Unibomber. This Unipiper fellow might have done even more damage.

  2. Ahhh… I think we have just discovered the appropriate method for dealing with all of these overblown, over-reaching stupid-ass drone laws that are sweeping the globe. Bury them under their own bullshit and bureaucracy. When it happens a few more times and tempers flare over flights delayed, I dare say cooler (and possibly saner) heads may prevail.

    1. I’ll tell you one thing: from here on out I’m gonna make sure to fly my drone at least five miles from my current location to avoid being harassed by bored and unnecessary law enforcement. Whoops, that’s not line of sight is it? I guess the regulations backfired.

    1. My reaction to this is as always: show us the drone.

      If they had something substantial, photographs of it would be all over the tabloids. See the 3d printed gun story linked above. No photos as yet.

      I await the official investigation with interest, though I suspect they;ll do everything in their power to bury it.

    2. The BBC reported that they used a recently-purchased electronic security tool to disable the drone, causing it to crash, and then recovered the wreckage.

      The story seems to be, “Police spokesperson didn’t know details, stumbled over explaining the limits of human knowledge to reporters, and hackaday confused the words `unidentified’ and `alien.'”

      I saw a UFO just last night, and I’ll never find out if it was really that new Honda jet, or just a Cessna Citation with a funny paint job. But it sure looked cool when the pilot flew down through the one gap in the clouds; lit up a big area of the cloud, and with that part still glowing, the headlights appeared in the gap.

  3. “No photos emerge despite almost every one of the many thousands of people on the site having a camera phone from which they are Tweeting about the queues in the terminal.”

    I can remember being taken as a kid to the airport just to watch some planes landing and taking off, but that was a couple of decades ago, and I think that even the terminus building we went to has been demolished. The days of airports having an outside viewing platform or even windows overlooking the runway are long gone. That’s a modern retail opportunity wasted, so instead that space gets rented out for large sums of money. I doubt anyone in the terminal had a chance to see a thing, not even from the car-park.

    Gatwick’s a big place, and while it’s largely in the middle of farmland, the corner where the passenger terminals are is where it gets closest to urban sprawl. Hence that’s probably the worst direction to launch a drone from if you want to get it back undetected. Come in from almost any other direction and you can find a quietish wood, hedge or footpath to take off and land from. Lots of rat-running commuters use those lanes, but almost no-one stops. Apart from the dog-walkers, who if they have any sense are going elsewhere for the time being. The most credible story I’ve seen to date is of the man with a bicycle using dead end drives that lead to a single large house or farm.

    1. Nevertheless, there are thousands of employees at Gatwick, so the chances of any part of the airfield not having someone with a camera phone are nil. Presumably someone had to be there, to make all these sightings in the first place.

    2. Plus, a drone is really small; if you take a picture, it is just going to be an indistinct smudge, not something that would be useful for identification. In a low quality photo, a drone and a bird will make an approximately equal sized smudge. Even with a quality DSLR, it is really hard to take pictures of birds without a really high quality lens. Even if I had been there with my best camera and best lens, and had been relatively close to the drone compared to other observers, it is still unlikely I’d get a picture worth sharing.

      There are probably dog-walkers who saw it, pointed their phone at it, and pressed the button. But that isn’t the same thing as having a picture people would bother linking to.

  4. Fully agreed there’s a lot more knowledge, as well as a better process and rules needed. Also fully agreed that sucks for the reputation of safe drone operators and fans.

    What just doesn’t help in this article is the tone and undertone implying everybody is against you. To me, as both a pilot, drone fan, and somebody impacted personally with that airport closure, this article comes across as whiney, not constructive, and very one-sided.
    I understand the frustration with the reporting and the mess-up of the authorities (and share it), but to assume everybody is thus against you, doesn’t really help. Apart from that you’re making a lot of assumptions in the lack of experts involved, the expertise level of aviation authorities, and the skills/judgement of pilots. Lots of us fly drones also.

    If you familiarise yourself with the authorities, rules and current process involved, at least you will point out the right authorities in a possible next post – and maybe, just maybe, contribute to making things better in stead of coming across as somebody who is frustrated because someone is wrong on the internet.

    1. It isn’t feasible because they make noise at a wide variety of frequencies. They’re even less consistent than the other sources of noise.

      My reason for believing this is the wide variety of different kV ratings for the motors. This is one of the main numbers used in marketing drone motors, and it represents the RPMs per volt. You’re supposed to match the props to this number for optimal performance. The products cover the whole range, from really fast motors that need small, light props, to slow ones that can drive larger props at the same power level.

      What they have deployed now for defense simply detects and jams the control signals. This is much smaller, more clearly defined set of frequencies. And while they might accidentally jam somebody’s bluetooth earpiece, anything important is already on a different set of frequencies.

      1. > anything important is already on a different set of frequencies

        Not it isn’t. You would have to jam lots of bands:

        – standard RC frequency around 30 Mhz, HF band, propagates across the whole planet…
        – all ISM and SRD bands as some long range controller sets now use 434 or 868 Mhz, and the M in ISM stands for medical, range tens of kilometers with good conditions and visibility
        – free 2.4 Ghz band which is also used by WIFI, bluetooth and many gadgets

        And the jamming itself is rather complicated without identifying the signal first. You would have to cause a strong enough interference to kill all communication (take into account the controlling signal power, bandwidth and self-correcting codes) in all the respective bands and you would have to do it omnidirectionally since you do not know where the drone is. That means a lot of power and lots of unwanted interference in very wide area. It is also very probably illegal even for law enforcemement to attempt this.

  5. Well yea the word Unidentified in UFO, pretty much should warrant consideration The nit to crack is credible spotters, Perhaps something to Sywarn should be considered. With everyone associated with an airpot no matter how loose that association is, required to take spotter training. With their name and training on record. From that the pool of trained spotters.
    Aa far RC aircraft goes, the says of motly reasonable RC aircraft and model rocketry are fading fast. Admittinly it’s imperfect. Perhaps a requirement that all model aircraft be required to be registered, and the aircraft and controller transmitting data intentify the manufacturer, and who the registered owner shroud be. Ast I see it; it’s not option not to be proactive, and willing to bend a little. Amateur radio has been redulated for decades. While the FCC is often slow to get with the times most licensees are generally satisfied. has given more than it has taken,

  6. “Obviously we had to be sure prior to release, in terms of that investigation, they were no longer suspects.”

    Mr Tingley continued: “I won’t apologise, but what I will say is we really do appreciate their co-operation and we have put a lot of effort and resources into supporting them when they were released from questioning.”
    —-
    that poor couple. such experiences can be traumatic to some.

    1. That poor couple now have enough ammunition for a 7-figure payout due to Sussex Police’s botched handling of the investigation, arrest and subsequent statements.

      The police not only put themselves in a deep hole, the chief constable kept digging with his statements.

    1. One the one hand, just because it is unidentified doesn’t mean it is aliens. OTOH, just because it is drone doesn’t mean it isn’t controlled by aliens!

      It would make sense for the aliens to disguise their sensors as Earth drones, now that we have the technology.

      There is no bottom; a couple thousand years ago in the Roman provinces, any strangely dressed person coming over the horizon signaled a Hun invasion. Or later, Norsemen. And sometimes it really was, regardless of if you’d ever actually seen one with your own eyes before. So this sort of paranoia has perhaps been an adaptive behavior in the past, and probably will be one again in the future.

      When people fear the unknown, it is perhaps a misunderstanding to focus excessively on what they imagine the unknown might contain.

  7. One amusing thing is that the BBC broadcast that the government’s official line was that there was no drone and all the suspects had bee released. Not ten minutes later, on the same channel, the same broadcaster went back on to talk about how the drone had shut the airport down. Nothing says coverup like complete denial. I’m thinking it was some sort of brief emergency landing of a stelth craft or government drone. Or perhaps an unannounced test to their security procedures. Hence now all the policy updates. It’s the subterfuge that intrigues me at the moment. I shall continue to quietly dig deeper.

  8. It isn’t the responsibility of the media to second guess qualified authorities, at some point they have to take something at face value. You don’t just assume they create 7+ digit damages on reports with no real evidence.

    I still don’t, I assume it’s more likely there were indications of terrorists getting ready to use MANPADs or something similar.

  9. I can tell this story from germany. Happened to me. I was a hobbypilot a few years ago. I have build my own DJI F-450 from scratch. It was really fun to make photos and video of our woods from high up. But still I had to stay within certain limits as I am located very close to some nofly zones. (Airbase Ramstein and Baumholder Training Center)
    I found a club and wanted to join the, Everyone there uses biplanes or helicopters for their hobby. They fly FPV with RC-jets. And here I am with my little quadcopter (Drone is the wrong word) flying around with 2 cameras on board. They sayed I would be one that spies other people because I record my flights. They blamed for stuff I have never done. So I asked them why they use cameras on those jets and they sayed, because its fun to fly FPV. I responded that I wouldnt do anything else.
    End of the story is, I was grounded by the mayor. Even when I presented my videos showing I am not spying on my neighbours, they did not accept me as “real” hobbypilot. They forced my to remove my videos from youtube, showing f… trees.

    4 Months later someone of the same club aquired a DJI “Drone” and made almost the same videos but way off the limits regarding secure and permitted FPV in germany. “Oh we love those videos. Please make more”
    Stupid people do stupid things. I sold my sh..

  10. Two words apply: “MORAL PANIC”

    Those two words have far more importance than you may think. It’s worth looking up the history of Moral Panics and in recent history how they have been used to restrict freedom of movement, association and even thought.

    This is the tool of the authoritarian, and media tend to play grinning sidekick without even realising that they’re being played.

  11. One of the mistakes made by both the media and the Government is to presume that Airline Pilots have expertise relevant to the regulation of drones. In general, they don’t – the airspace they work in is so different from the very low-level at which drones operate at and their flight mode is very different – however they do have an agenda. Just as automatically driving cars are beginning to appear, Airline Pilots are feeling the pressure of automated systems on their employment, where there is a lot of research going on into where – or if – a human pilot is needed in the future. Discrediting unmanned flying as dangerous, whilst being perceived as domain experts suits their protectionist aim. Some Air Proximity reports cite viewing a drone at 10,000 feet and upwards. It is simply not credible that an off-the-shelf drone could operate at this altitude – they do not have the battery capacity to climb that high and return, let alone have the power necessary to cope with the substantially stronger wind-speeds that can be encountered higher up, despite it being flat calm at ground level. An airliner travels three times faster or more than motorway speed, so for an object passing close enough to the aeroplane to be seen by a Pilot, she/he would have to be looking in exactly in the right direction to see it as an initial speck, before it whizzed past a second later as an irresolvable blur. Pilots may occasionally see drone-sized things at altitude – escaped helium – filled mylar party balloons have the capacity to reach 10,000 ft +, but drones do not.

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