Gatwick Drone Incident: Police Still Clueless

Quietly released and speedily buried by Parliamentary wrangles over Brexit is the news that Sussex Police have exhausted all lines of inquiry  into the widely publicised drone sighting reports that caused London’s Gatwick Airport to be closed for several days last December. The county’s rozzers have ruled out 96 ‘people of interest’ and combed through 129 separate reports of drone activity, but admit that they are no closer to feeling any miscreant collars. There is no mention of either their claims at the time to have found drone wreckage, their earlier admissions that sightings might have been of police drones, or even that there might have been no drone involved at all.

Regular readers will know that we have reported extensively the sorry saga of official reactions to drone incidents, because we believe that major failings in reporting and investigation will accumulate to have an adverse effect on those many people in our community who fly multi-rotors. In today’s BBC report for example there is the assertion that 109 of the drone sightings came from “‘credible witnesses’ including a pilot and airport police” which while it sounds reassuring is we believe a dangerous route to follow because it implies that the quality of evidence is less important than its source. It is crucial to understand that multi-rotors are still a technology with which the vast majority of the population are still unfamiliar, and simply because a witness is a police officer or a pilot does not make them a drone expert whose evidence is above scrutiny.

Whichever stand you take on the drone sightings at Gatwick and in other places it is clear that Sussex Police do not emerge from this smelling of roses and that their investigation has been chaotic and inept from the start. We believe that there should be a public inquiry into the whole mess, so that those embarrassing parts of it which they and other agencies are so anxious to quietly forget can be subjected to scrutiny. We do not however expect this to happen any time soon.

Keystone Kops header image: Mack Sennett Studios [Public domain].

32 thoughts on “Gatwick Drone Incident: Police Still Clueless

  1. Wow! Who knew that law enforcement could bungle an investigation and then try to cover it up…
    I guess that cops will be cops the world over. (To be clear, I have great respect for good, honest police officers, but not so much for idiots like the ones that screw-balled this mess.)

  2. I’m sure that the Sussex Police investigation was clumsy at best, but I think we should be fair to them and acknowledge that investigating the truth of the Loch Ness monster is hard… oh… I mean the beast of Bodmin Moor… oh no! Drones!
    Seriously though, when tasked with finding the source of something that either doesn’t exist or can disappear without trace it’s going to be a struggle. Personally I’m of the opinion that there were no drones around Gatwick, but that’s not exactly provable.

  3. I understand that you are very passionate about this subject, but please take a breath and proof your work… Run on sentences everywhere (the first sentence is actually 3), British slang without any help for non-uk readers (is parliamentary wrangles a noun? Rozzers?). Accessabillity by as many people as possible is the goal, however lofty that ideal is…

  4. This is a classic case of ‘Burn the witch!’ premised on the police are screw-up because they were unable to reach a conclusion.

    It is a hard problem. It is a problem with little meaningful precedent and investigators that need to make it up as they go. The natural response from the outside is that they are screw-ups and incompetent. But that is wrong. Their primary mistake is the closed nature of the finale.

    In much of industry (or the US and other military, power, aviation, shipping, most of the worlds nuclear industry, among other places), this is not where we need a public inquiry, in the traditional, governmental, assign blame sense. This is an optimal situation for building a Lessons-Learned case, so that, next time, and there will be a next time, the investigators and the public have a basis from which to work.

    What DID they find? What is the reliability of each witness (as noted, pilots and police officers do not necessarily have any framework to be reliable here)? How is the reliability established? What changes are needed to the process (PRIOR to an incident, as well as investigative process after one) to reduce risk and improve likelihood of a resolution? What can be done to reduce the risk of further incidents (real or imagined)? And a thousand other things.

    Given the long history of formal investigation and the lessons learned process in aviation, I am surprised that this came to naught with a dustbrush toward a lifted corner of the carpet.

    1. I don’t blame the police at all. For any crime reported, the police have an obligation to respond and thoroughly investigate. They aren’t usually there, while the crime is being commuted. It’s not often like TV crime dramas either, few get solved in an hour. It takes a lot of time and manpower, the more severe the crime, the greater the commitment. They fail to solve many crimes, or even establish that a crime was actually committed in the first place. But, how foolish would the be, if they didn’t do their best, and there really was something to the reports? Even though consumer drones are rarely used in crimes, the do get used, and have that potential. There was a quick clip on the news a few days ago, of a drone dropping off some contraband to a prison inmate, cell phone in that case. Didn’t find that particular clip online, but it seems like it fairly common. Few years ago, there was a story, about somebody strapping a pistol on a drone, just to see if it works, apparently it did, sort of…

      Basically, the police need to investigate everything reported, accept it as credible, until they find out otherwise. I’m sure they would all prefer to investigate a false alarm, over trying to find someone who just killed hundreds of people.

        1. I am a strong enthusiast of drone-flight (especially racing drones). I myself once took my drone to work to fly over lunch-break, just to realize the work is within the no-fly distance from major airport.
          But I have full understanding for a newbie that simply did not realize the fact, tried to fly and caused major outage.
          What I found out the day I almost flew my drone next to airport was a fact that there was almost no chance for police to identify me later should I have not been caught during the act.
          I even understand the attempt to quietly let it go – it would be better for a possible future perpetrator just to think they’ve caught the previous guy ;)

  5. Jenny did you see this somewhat scaremongery Horizon Doc about Drone attacks –

    I watched it thinking – well what about the many people who responsibly fly drones? There was a small hint right at the end about how drones can bring real benefits to the world in Emergency response, data capture etc, but it seriously concentrated on this whole nearly non-existent terrorist attack possibility (waiting to happen undoubtedly), and tying the whole personal drone thing with the multi-million attack drones, yet again.
    Some real cases were mentioned, such as a soldier who got footage of ‘drone attacks’, which seemed much more to do with enemy surveillance than outright attack. The one attack on some president in a south american country – can’t remember the fine details except a grenade was detonated in the air. And of course the Gatwick sightings, which failed to even consider that there may never have been drones there to begin with!

    Just totally unbalanced research, and super-scary mongering of monumental proportions.

  6. Seems to me that airports could put up a network of radio sniffers around the property to detect signals that are routinely used by so-called “drones”, or better known as quad copters, in most cases. UAV is probably the best term for such aircraft. Understanding that these won’t capture all occurrences, and could be subject to noise, I’m sure there are good ways to detect and then investigate such infractions. There could possibly be the addition of a camera network with object recognition to help determine the presence of UAVs. With some planning and testing, they should be able to put together a good system to help detect and prevent this type of unwanted aircraft in controlled airspace.

  7. Any chance it was something like this? I just recently spotted the GIF.
    After a quick web search, I can’t seem to get an answer about the setup, just more links to the GIF or some damned phone app.
    At first guess, I’d think it might use helium and some sugary foam?

    Hydrogen for flotation along with overwatted laser pointers, could be the next new sport craze? X^D

  8. Me, knowledgeable about the previous hackaday articles, have myself misidentified a drone and reported it to the “airthoroties”.

    A friend of mine is a general aviation pilot, we were flying from the Netherlands to Oxford 3 weeks ago, and we saw a hot air balloon in the distance.
    A small object seemed to emanate from the balloon and flew around in the vincinity, with quite abrupt movements. From a distance it seemed like a large drone, and I estimated it be less than 1.5m in diametre.

    When we passed the balloon the object flew ahead of us and was quite far (think a few km) from the balloon, and at our height (1500ish foot) so my friend reported it to air traffic control (or however they are called in uncontrolled airspace).

    When we came closer, I got my zoom lens out and took some blurry shots, and from the shape, concluded it was a delta-shaped ultralight aircraft, which will have a wingspan of 6m. We were baffled because with the naked eye it looked too small and seemed to have too quick changes of speed and direction for a “large” manned flying object.

    Naturally, we notified air traffic uncontrol of our missighting.

  9. You will get in trouble Jenny taking the mick out of pc plod …they will be watching you carefully…that is if they can figure out how to switch the surveillance camera on and you know all that talk about multi-rotors they won’t be able to understand it,put it in simple terms for the poor things.

  10. Not long ago, I saw a drone well within the five miles exclusion zone near an airport runway. It was white and doing some amazing, aerobatic flying maybe 100 feet above the ground on a windy day. When I got closer, I saw it was a white plastic bag…

  11. The most chilling thing about this incident was the couple that they investigated were just people who had bought a Phantom and posted about it on Facebook. They also were part of a peaceful pro-environment (IIRC) group. Those two things together were all it took to make them suspect number one, and keep them in jail and question him (them?) for days despite having an alibi from the husband’s employer. I personally don’t believe a small plastic drone is much threat to a full-sized aircraft. They may be more harmful than birds, but not by a lot. The threat of harsh treatment over legal, moral facebook posts is the most terrifying part for me.

  12. Some things that I didn’t see mentioned here are A) I highly doubt that most police forces have well-established procedures for investigating and dealing with drones being used illegally and B) while their initial conclusions might have been been ‘what drones?’, they are under the thumb of politicians to make problems go away, and so end up stuck between the rock of no evidence or establish procedure and the hard place of tyrannical, hysterical political authority and a rabid, entitled public. Ouch.

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