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.
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.
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
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
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
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.