The Gatwick Drone: Little By Little, The Story Continues To Unravel

If you remember the crazy events in the winter of 2018 as two airports were closed over reports of drone sightings, you might be interested to hear that there’s still a trickle of information about those happenings making it into the public domain as Freedom of Information responses.

Three Christmases ago the news media was gripped by a new menace, that of rogue drones terrorising aircraft. The UK’s Gatwick airport had been closed for several days following a spate of drone sightings, and authorities thundered about he dire punishments which would be visited upon the perpetrators when they were caught. A couple were arrested and later quietly released, and after a lot of fuss the story quietly disappeared.

Received Opinion had it that a drone had closed an airport, but drone enthusiasts, and Hackaday as a publication in their sphere, were asking awkward questions about why no tangible evidence of a drone ever having been present had appeared. Gradually the story unravelled with the police and aviation authorities quietly admitting that they had no evidence of a drone, and a dedicated band of drone enthusiasts has continues to pursue the truth about those few winter nights in 2018. The latest results chase up the possibility that the CAA might have received a description of the drone, and why when a fully functional drone detection system had been deployed and detected nothing they continued with the farce of closing the airport.

Perhaps the saddest thing about these and other revelations about the incident which have been teased from the authorities is that while they should fire up a scandal, it seems inevitable that they won’t. The police, the government, and the CAA have no desire to be reminded of their mishandling of the event, neither except for a rare bit of mild questioning do the media wish to be held to account for the execrable quality of their reporting. The couple who were wrongly arrested have not held back in their condemnation, but without the attention of any powerful vested interests it seems that some of the measures brought in as a response will never be questioned. All we can do is report any new developments in our little corner of the Internet, and of course keep you up to date with any fresh UK police drone paranoia.

96 thoughts on “The Gatwick Drone: Little By Little, The Story Continues To Unravel

  1. I call it “hacking an airline with a drone” :D
    The jet engines are prepared to grind down birds, but would it take a drone?
    New design requirements :D

      1. “you’d think engine manufacturers would have at least done some testing by now”

        Unlike most of the technology-inept [beyond their iToy] journalism majors looking for something sensational to write about, they know what the actual threat BY FAR is – birds:

        737 Pilot – Airliners vs. Drones: Calm Down

        “Much ado has been produced by the media about the hazards of drones flying in proximity to airliners, but I’m happy to report: it’s much ado about nothing.

        The hazard presented by unwanted objects in an aircraft’s flight path is nothing new. In fact, each year hundreds of bird strikes are dutifully and without fanfare reported by airline pilots as is required by law. (Actually, in 2018 alone, 16,020 were reported to the FAA – W)

        What’s new is the opportunity for media and aviation “pundits” to claim more screaming headlines by overstating the drone hazard. First, consider the typical, average weight of the plentiful waterfowl populating the bird sanctuaries neighboring JFK, LGA, ORD, DFW, SEA, PDX, LAX, SAN, DCA, SFO, BOS and most Florida airports to name but a few. The weight varies from the 10-13 pound goose to the heavier seabirds like pelican which can weigh up to 30 pounds.”


        This report presents a summary analysis of data from the National Wildlife Strike Database (NWSD) for the 29-year period 1990 through 2018.

        The number of strikes annually reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) increased 8.7-fold from 1,850 in 1990 to a record 16,020 in 2018. The 2018 total was an increase of 1,356 strikes (9 percent) compared to the 14,664 strikes reported in 2017. For 1990–2018, 214,048 strikes were reported (209,950 in USA and 4,098 strikes by U.S.-registered aircraft in foreign countries). In 2018, birds were involved in 94.7 percent of the reported strikes, bats in 3.2 percent, terrestrial mammals in 1.8 percent, and reptiles in 0.3 percent.

        1. I’ll just point out that birds are basically sacks of water. Titanium blades should mince them fairly easily. Drones are made of slightly more solid stuff, including the odd metal bits, and perhaps wouldn’t mince as easily (where “easy” is a synonym for “no blade damage”).

          Not that I would want to be a passenger sitting in the “death row” seat (the one lined up with the little red line on the engine cowling) when we find out…

          1. Are you sure about that? I’ve always been told that when one hits water at high enough speed (such as falling from a large height) the water can’t give way fast enough and it’s just as bad as landing on solid concrete.

            How fast are those turbines moving when they strike your “bag of mostly water” bird?

          2. Welcome to inertia. They same thing that let liquid filled aluminum sacks in the shape of wings cut through the steel external skeleton of the World Trade Center like a radioactive red hot knife through cotton candy.

          3. From what I understand the difference in materials is the main issue. While weight always matters, for drones a lot of the weight is concentrated in different parts, whereas birds are somewhat more homogeneous. The frame of many drones is plastic, but the motors are often fairly solid chunks of metal, which impact at a tight point, and which wouldn’t vaporize like birds would.
            Ultimately this is all speculation. I’m sure there are studies on the topic. Does anyone know any good ones?

          4. Even if birds are “basically sacks of water”, they fly in formation and normally don’t give way.
            So you have multiple bird strikes vs 1 drone.
            Also, some birds have the same to double the weight of a drone.
            And let’s not forget, after some speed/height, hitting water is like hitting concrete.

            One study done in the UK, was deemed national security interest, so it wasn’t made public.
            If the study concluded that drones were/are more harmful than birds, won’t it be useful to make it public to pass drone laws based on this facts?
            Of course, rumors/leaks at the time, said that drones are more or less equal to birds, probably because of this.

            There’s a video of a drone being shot (really shot) at the wing of a small plane, but I don’t know the details of the experiment.

          5. 1) the blades on the fan of most “new” (nearly 30 years old) large engines are hollow
            2) the actually new ones sometimes use composite fan blades
            3) the tips of the fan blades are nearly supersonic, new engines go past that speed…also the plane itself is moving 250+km/h
            Anything bigger like a goose will damage the engine enough to need a rebuild

          6. Well, you would think that the blades would mince a bird, maybe sometimes it does but not always, even a duck being ingested can cause serious damage and may render the engine inactive. I must also state that there were quite a few workers at Gatwick Airport who witnessed the drone flying around

    1. “three_d_dave says:
      July 20, 2021 at 7:38 am
      Welcome to inertia. They same thing that let liquid filled aluminum sacks in the shape of wings cut through the steel external skeleton of the World Trade Center like a radioactive red hot knife through cotton candy.”

      Except, uh, no. There were no “holes where the wings went in”. Similarly at the Pentagon, which unlike the WTC was NOT designed to withstand the impact of a jet airliner. No wing holes. So, in a word, no.

    2. Think of it as conditioning the public to view drones as a threat….all so the FAA could impose stupidity and kick everyone else to the tarmac. Amazon, WALMART, FedEx and others where behind it.

    1. I’ve truly enjoyed watching drones take jobs away from helicopter pilots for news gathering. Those, and aerial photographers for low-altitude real-estate shots are the ones really spooked by drones. That’s why the FAA was being pressured to require every drone operator to go to a full flight ground school – $10k or more worth of training that had nothing to do with safe drone operations – to keep their pride and pocketbooks intact.

      1. I’ve heard from a friend who works for a major worldwide news company that their drone pilots frequently ignore all the safety restrictions that amateurs comply with, relying on heavy redundancy and insurance if anything goes wrong.
        They’re probably also subcontracted so that the news company won’t carry the can for it.

      2. While I do have sympathy for helicopter pilots loosing jobs, I really do, you have to admit low altitude flights over populated areas for things as unimportant as taking pictures a 5 pound drone is a safer option than a manned helicopter. (Oh I just see you were being sarcastic but I think you agree the point still stands.)

        1. Sometimes, low altitude helicopter flights solves breaking rules with karma.
          Here in Hollywood, we lost a very good pilot and a family by flying to close to the ground.
          Basketball suffers still.

    1. By “the culprits” do you mean the people who (apparently mistakenly) thought they saw drones at Gatwick? The people running the airport who decided to err on the side of caution and shut it down? The politicians and others who have been fearmongering about quads? Or the press that heard “possible drone sighting” and reported that there was something concrete?

      I’m afraid there are a lot of people responsible for what happened, but it looks like none of them were drone pilots. (Or at least, there’s no evidence of such.) Who should go to jail?

        1. That particular incident cost us over $2000 in last minute ticket/hotel rebookings, and there were likely several thousand others in a similar situation. It was a bit more than an inconvenience. But you are probably right about us deserving jail time.

    2. Not sure if I am more riled up about the horrendous grammar/punctuation or what [Janet Eaton] is saying.

      Then again, I am not sure that I understand the second because of the first, so let’s go with the grammar/punctuation.

      1. In my country we have ban on baseball bats reason was it was supposedly used by gang members, real gang members started using golf clubs or spade/axe handles ready made bought from hardware stores baseball clubs dwindled only few exist in bigger cities and amateur baseball is nonexistant. Under that decision was someone wanted to bar independent wood workers from making them and earn more on selling imports.

  2. On the Gatwick case, 15 to 30min after the incident, reports said there was NO drone, but still the airport remained close.
    Rumors/conspiracy, talked about the airport systems being hacked.
    One week (or a few weeks) afterward, the airport bought a few million dollar “anti-drone” system…

    Spotting a “normal” sized drone is very hard.
    Pilots constantly lied about it seeing them.
    How far can you spot a basketball, when you looking at instruments and flying at much higher speeds than a drone…

    Rumors say, some airline companies, “recommended” pilots report “UFO” as drone…
    So: plastic bag = drone, balloon = drone, light reflection = drone, etc.

    What happened to dozens of years of UFO??
    It’s all drones…

    And the “Media” click-bait…
    Zero evidence, zero witnesses, zero photos or videos, nothing about maintenance issues on planes, pilots lying, etc.
    The worse media frenzy click-bait I’ve seen in years.

    I believe the only “confirmed” drone accident was against a US military helicopter, because they recover some pieces of it and I believe they also found and charged the drone-pilot for flying above the legal altitude.

    Governments pass draconian laws to kill the hobby and to harm law abiding users, thus killing innovation for the big players to keep making more money.

    So what’s new?
    Money bribes politicians and manipulates public opinion to make more money, while hurting the people and the planet.
    So again… what’s new?
    A new bulls***?

    1. Government is monumentally stupid… the old saying none of us is as stupid as all of us…. its the very definition of government. Defines those that work for it and those that make them self subject to it.
      Don’t fly where the stupid can see you… you don’t have a problem. I fly all the time, never have a problem with stupid… cause stupid never knows.

          1. With all due respect “Jonathan”, as a former open source drone project developer I believe I know a little more about this than the average Joe.

            For years now, the drone community had been debunking drone incidents because it wanted to enjoy the hobby, develop new ideas and be left alone in it’s “grey area” of the RC aeromodel community rules.
            If I remember it correctly and if it hasn’t changed, a drone is a “flying camera”.
            So any toy plane model, balloon, kite, etc. with a camera, is a drone…
            The RC community has been flying for decades with cameras.
            It’s like a smartphone is not a phone…
            Drones are a normal evolution of the old RC aero models.
            More easy to use, more advanced, more precise, more secure.

            The split between the (“old”) RC community and the drone one, did not help in protecting both hobbies (both suffered).
            So, when drones started becoming the “new toy”/hype, studies showing an untapped billion dollar industry and some exemples of drones watching revolutions on some complicated countries, things started snowballing.

            Main stream media did an awesome job of just showing the first part of “alleged” drone incidents.
            At least in 2 cases I’ve seen, showing a damaged/imploded airline nose and a cracked small plane windshield and then saying it was a drone crash, without any proof than the “word” of the pilots.
            No small drone pieces, scratches, paint transfer, etc.???
            Then a few days later we found out, this damaged parts were due to bad/non existence maintenance, but the damage was already done against the “drones”.
            Drones = Bad , that was the slogan of the media (more click-bait = more money).

            Personally, I don’t like the word drone. I still prefer the old UAV/UAS (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle/System).
            The Drone word got a bad reputation from the previous years of drone strikes in the Middle East.
            But the DIYDRONES community got famous and with the push of one of its founders Chris Anderson (former Wired editor), the Drone naming won over UAV/UAS.

            All this doesn’t help in a disinformation/click-bait media/social media era.
            So when the Gatwick incident happened, there was a big push for drone laws.
            EU drone rules had been in the back burner, but then they were pushed and rushed.

            In my country, there were a few “drone” incidents for a few weeks, with zero proofs.
            Then after a “debate” show, the drone incidents “miraculously” disappear.
            The public consensus was done, the drone laws could easily pass.
            Apart from some news about using drones for fire surveillance, there are basically zero drone news. Coincidence?

            In some EU countries there are some absurd/out-of-touch drone laws.
            I believe in Denmark, you had to upload your videos/photos to check for recording of historic buildings. So if film/photo a “historic” building you can’t use it, but I can take a photo/make a video with my smartphone of it???
            In my country, to fly you need to request recording permission to the Air Force at least 3 day in advanced (even for hobby), because of a rule from the 60s… I can’t go out an have fun…
            I can record it from an airliner (which by the law is “illegal”), but they don’t fine the passenger, the airline company… So drones are the bogeyman??

            Governments and institutions are out-of-touch with technology and they always do the same, oppress the people.
            Who profits the most, the big corporations.
            DJI is an absurd drone leader, that’s even worst than the Microsoft/Apple+Linux differences.

            So “Jonathan” can you present your side of the story or are you just trolling?

            News about the buy of the anti-drone system:
            After checking the Wikipedia, there are a few more UAV incidents, but a lot of them are alleged and not confirmed.

    2. The drone hit by the helicopters was operated out of his direct vision. The helo was operating far below normal altitude with transponders off, at excessive speed for normal traffic.

      Meanwhile GA kills, on average, one person a day, usually due to poor pilot planning skills. But civilian drones have killed no one and get the scary publicity.

      The fear is about keeping view-assist helicopter jobs (search, news, real-estate) expensive and in the hands of helo pilots, and the clear the way for big companies to use the low altitude space for commercial delivery. None of it is about safety.

  3. There was apparently intelligence that a drone attack on a UK airport was being considered by terrorists at the time, I can’t help but think this influenced how seriously the authorities reacted to the reports.

      1. Reports said they found plans for drone attacks at airports after raiding UK terrorist suspects. They may have been fantasy for all I know, but the timing of the reports and the issues at the airport suggest to me that they were taken seriously enough to ground planes in reaction to suspected sightings.

    1. That sounds like a convenient excuse to make up after you goof. I’m sure they offered no proof of such “intelligence” which I think should rather be called “stupidity.”

  4. The real scandal is. It does not matter anymore!

    When you look at the new EU Drone regulations that came from this “incident!

    Basically, you need a license for everything above 249g and you are not allowed to fly anywhere near civilisation.

    And they also killed the classic modelplanes because there is no diffrence anymore between a glider and a copter.

  5. There seem to be quite a few strong opinions on both sides of the drones-good/drones-bad debate. I can see both sides. I had an open mind about the drone thing at Heathrow and my opinion of drones hasn’t changed. There are a lot of very good uses for drones (emergency deliveries and communications, accessing difficult areas, even just having fun). There are also a lot of very bad uses for them. Are most people good? Yes. Are there also some bad people out there? Yes. Are some people absolute idiots? Yes. Cars can be good. Cars can be bad. Depends on the user. I’m glad that car use is regulated.

    1. Drones, aka miniature aka model aircraft have been flying as a hobby for nearly 100 years. About 70 of those years have included remote control. In those time frames the number of people killed or severely injured who were not themselves handling the aircraft is in the low double digits planet wide. If it is more than 50 I’d be surprised.

      And all that was without regulation.

      We know what a pressure cooker and a few pounds of nails can do – where’s the regulation on those items? Is there a license to buy them? Is there an examination required? Is there a photo ID needed to own and operate them?

      1. Do not f%^* ask questions like that, or the nanny state will be taking away our rice cookers and nails.
        “Nails? You can’t buy those. You’re not a licensed and unionised tradesman.”

      2. Explosive devices are either banned or licensed. Just pressure cooker and nails aren’t enough you need something to go boom and thats hevily regulated in all EU. But i understand your anger UAVs are overregulated now, I’d leave licensing for UAVs over say 5kg?15kg? (something in the size that could damage helicopter/airliner and/or carry explosives in quantity that could poise danger) and require them to not fly in restricted airspace and thats it.

  6. Not to say whether the folks at Gatwick were overreacting or not, but from my days in Naval Aviation I can tell you that little bits of metal are taken VERY seriously in that environment. Several times a day sometimes everyone in the squadron would line up shoulder to shoulder across the runway and into the grass(on land) and walk head down along the entire length. Any foreign object got picked up and turned in. Woe unto the guy who left as much as a safety wire on the ground. M3 nuts were a big deal. A fully loaded plane taking off is near the edge of it’s envelope and does not have an engine to spare to the kind of damage an ounce of metal can do at the bullet like speeds at which things move in a jet engine. Birds are soft and engines are designed to handle striking them, but brushless motors (in groups of 4) are a whole different matter.

    1. Ah, yes. Memories of the morning and evening FOD walks up and down the deck of the Midway. These short walks were some of the few relatively quiet periods topside – very Zen and always an enjoyable interlude. But those were simple (and simplistic) days of no internet, the ‘stabiity’ of the cold war, and the last era where a single human could understand a complete system and its associated firmware. And no drones to be found…

    2. You know how they find metal in the air – they use radar. Know what did not show up on radar at Gatwick? Metal.

      If those morons think that there will be a terrorist attack using a drone they need to put in a millimeter wavelength radar system or systems to detect them rather than depending on someone thinking they saw something in the fog.

      So far there have been about 50 Million quad copter drones sold planet wide. If there was going to be a problem there would already have been a problem.

      Next up – why won’t pilots wear red-tint glasses to prevent being “blinded” by green laser pointers and therefore avoid the danger rather than putting one of the 500,000+ laser pointer guys in prison for 20 years when none of them have ended with even a bumpy landing. Oh, right, they’d have to change some colors for the panels in the planes and that would cost money – because money is more important than safety and prosecuting people after is better than never being vulnerable at all.

      1. Also : red lasers. And blue lasers.

        When you filter out red, blue and green, you end up relying on your other senses for landing, which doesn’t always work out well.

        But yes, ultimately even a moderately powerful handheld laser pointer at km+ range pointing at a cockpit is probably going to cause nothing worse than a blink reflex and maybe a few dazzled spots. Not ideal but not the sort of instant blindness the press would have you believe pilots will suffer.

    1. The US courts have held that owning and carrying a gun is a God-given right as guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Anything else a person owns can be taken by force under civil forfeiture laws as long as a cop pinkie swears with a straight face he is pretty sure it might be somehow related to an unnamed crime. Of course, stripped bare and left on the side of the road, the citizen can file suit and, in 10 years or so, it might get to court. The cops do prefer cash, though a nice car isn’t off the list. They can also take homes and land, but that’s not as easy to spend; lots of legal hassles with getting title and so forth. I suppose cops could just take your drone from you and claim that it might be in use for planning a crime or delivering drugs at some time in the past. Prove it wasn’t.

        1. You might have to take it a step further and make the drone out of the gun, so that the two are inseparable. Then you’d probably just find that they rule it as something in a controlled class. Most states have rules as to which class of firearm you can own. Fully automatic guns are almost always banned. A small caliber handgun as the base might make it through ok.

  7. this is all just to ban uav’s from public use eventually and license the space so govt’s can get more money nothing else. The govt has made everyone so paranoid that even mentioning drones/quads/planes almost gets you a visit from the local police. and the worst part is the local police are so inept on this subject that there is literally nothing you can do because you are guilty by association. just go watch this video to see how inept the police actually are.

  8. In the world of “Risk”, it is either “Safe” or “Not Safe”. If there is ever any doubt, then the safest solution is, that it is not safe.

    So in this case, the action was the correct action. Had an aircraft and the souls onboard been lost to a drone collision incident, the outcome would have been much worse.

    Like all incidents, later information often shows that the circumstances were different. That is called learning.

    Thete is a lot of “blame” being assigned here. That is wrong.

    For clarity, many of us drone users also fly on commercial and sometimes other flights. I sure, not one of us would like to be on either side of a drone/aircraft incident.

    Sure, the outcome is more regulation and restriction. If that saves either party, aircraft (read people) or drone (read drone pilot) from an incident, then it is an excellent outcome.

    Know that the regulations also deal for use of drones in given circumstances such as the vicinity of airport. That is a good thing

    1. No, this is stupid. Taking the most hyper-paranoid approach to any situation isn’t free. There is such a thing as “probability”, not just discrete buckets of “safe” or “unsafe” – nothing is entirely safe.

  9. Sorry, but I don’t get the point of this article. So there was no drone? What is your evidence? I guess the same. And there are no people who would do such a stupid thing like flying drones over the airport? The same as there are no people who would do such a stupid thing like pointing lasers into pilots’ faces? Yes, I’m also not happy about the strict regulations, but this is as usual the case of several idiots ruining it for everybody. Give me a break with this conspiration sh*t.

  10. There is a really odd thin in the British culture – it’s not just a tolerance to incompetence, but a proud celebration of it. We did not just vote one buffoon after another into highest positions, we’re very protective of every kind of lowlife screwing up massively. I have no idea why, it’s up to social anthropologists to explain.

      1. That’s better known as Puritanism. It was originally referred to as Luther’s disease after the 16th century German theologian.

        It was re-introduced to the UK in 1942 by descendants of the original carriers who fled to ‘The New World’ after the Restoration in 1660.

  11. And that is exactly the problem. Thank you for personifying the logic, or lack thereof, that takes in neutral information, overreacts about it into a frenzy, and leads to the death of freedom for people who aren’t you.

    Hey, I heard that telescopes and binoculars can be used to steal information and invade privacy. In the interests of safety and security, all astronomers, photographers, birdwatchers, etc. should have to register any lens they own over a certain size, which could be used for espionage. Not only will we be more secure, but the licensing fees and taxes collected will go to… *spins wheel* …saving the children!

    Meanwhile, 10 wars later, that money runs out, and the children still need saving. Maybe they’ll come for your speech next. It’s super dangerous, and they could use the cash.

  12. What is that you say? An invented false flag operation that in effect never really took place as a means to implement drastic measures that otherwise never would have been considered? Surely not !!

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