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.

The Gatwick Drone: Finally Someone Who Isn’t Us Asks Whether It Ever Really Existed

It’s taken two years, but finally it’s happened. Finally a respected national mass-media outlet has asked the question Hackaday were posing shortly after the event: what evidence was there that a drone was actually present in restricted airspace?

The Guardian newspaper in the UK is the outlet looking into the mystery of the Gatwick drone. It was the worldwide story of the moment around this time back in 2018 when the London airport closed down for several days in response to a series of drone reports. The assumption being put forward was that bad actors in the drone community were to blame, but there was significant disquiet in those ranks as the police and media story simply lacked credibility to anyone with knowledge of drones. At no point could they point to evidence that held water, the couple they arrested turned out to be innocent, and eventually a police officer admitted that there might not have been a drone after all. The damage had by then been done, as Received Opinion had it that irresponsible drone enthusiasts had put lives in danger and caused huge economic damage by closing an airport for several days.

The Guardian piece paints a fascinating and detailed picture of the events surrounding the investigation, by bringing the investigative journalism resources of a national newspaper into tracing and interviewing people involved from all sides. They talk to former Gatwick employees, off-the-record police officers with knowledge of the case, a drone specialist journalist, and the drone community including some of its members with significant professional experience in the world of aviation. It talks about the slow drip-feed of freedom of information requests revealing the machinations behind the scenes and furthermore the continuing lack of tangible proof of a drone. It’s very much worth a read, and we hope it will prompt further investigation of the events without the focus being on a non-existent drone.

We’d like to invite you to read Hackaday’s coverage from a few days after the event, and for an overview of the subject including the later Heathrow event, watch the CCCamp talk I presented on the topic in 2019. Then as now, our wish is for competent police investigations, responsible media reporting of drone stories, and credible official investigations of air proximity reports surrounding drones.

Header: Lucy Ingham, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Justice For The Gatwick Two: The Final Chapter In The British Drone Panic Saga

At the end of 2018, a spate of drone sightings caused the temporary closure of London Gatwick Airport, and set in train a chain of events that were simultaneously baffling and comedic as the authorities struggled to keep up with both events and the ever widening gap in their knowledge of the subject.

One of the more inept actions of the Sussex Police was to respond by arresting the first local drone enthusiast they could find on Facebook, locking up a local couple for 36 hours and creating a media frenzy by announcing the apprehension of the villains before shamefacedly releasing them without charge.

In a final twist to the sorry saga, the couple have sued the force for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment, for which the cops have had to make a £200,000 ($250,117) payout including legal fees.

We reported extensively on the events surrounding the case 18 months ago, and then on a follow-up event at London Heathrow airport. The mass media at the time were full of the official line that drone hobbyists must be at fault, but then as now we were more interested in seeing some hard evidence. As we said then: Show us the drone.

So how has the new drone law progressed, since it was decided that Something Must Be Done? Enthusiasts have continued as before, and the multirotor community is as technically creative as ever. We were fortunate enough to host the Lets Drone Out podcast at MK Makerspace back in those halcyon days before the pandemic and see the state of the art in sub-250g craft, and with those and commercial offerings such as the DJI Mavic Mini all requiring no registration there is increasingly little need for an enthusiast to purchase a larger machine. The boost to the British drone industry we were promised has instead been a boost for the Chinese industry as we predicted, and of course we’re still waiting for the public inquiry into the whole mess. Something tells us Hell will freeze over first.

If you’d like the whole backstory in a convenient and entertaining video format, can we direct you to this talk at CCCamp 2019.

Thanks [Stuart Rogers] for the tip.

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

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].

FAA Proposes Refined Drone Regulations

The wheels of government move slowly, far slower than the pace at which modern technology is evolving. So it’s not uncommon for laws and regulations to significantly lag behind the technology they’re aimed at reigning in. This can lead to something of a “Wild West” situation, which could either be seen as a good or bad thing depending on what side of the fence you’re on.

In the United States, it’s fair to say that we’ve officially moved past the “Wild West” stage when it comes to drone regulations. Which is not to say that remotely controlled (RC) aircraft were unregulated previously, but that the rules which governed them simply couldn’t keep up with the rapid evolution of the technology we’ve seen over the last few years. The previous FAA regulations for remotely operated aircraft were written in an era where RC flights were lower and slower, and long before remote video technology moved the operator out of the line of sight of their craft.

To address the spike in not only the capability of RC aircraft but their popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration was finally given the authority to oversee what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) with the repeal of Section 336 in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. Section 336, known as the “Special Rule for Model Aircraft” was previously put in place to ensure the FAA’s authority was limited to “real” aircraft, and that small hobby RC aircraft would not be subject to the same scrutiny as their full-size counterparts. With Section 336 gone, one could interpret the new FAA directives as holding manned and unmanned aircraft and their operators to the same standards; an unreasonable position that many in the hobby strongly rejected.

At the time, the FAA argued that the repealing Section 336 would allow them to create new UAS regulations from a position of strength. In other words, start with harsh limits and regulations, and begin to whittle them down until a balance is found that everyone is happy with. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao has revealed the first of these refined rules are being worked on, and while they aren’t yet official, it seems like the FAA is keeping to their word of trying to find a reasonable middle ground for hobby fliers.

Continue reading “FAA Proposes Refined Drone Regulations”

Drone Sightings, A New British Comedy Soap Opera

There’s a new soap opera that I can’t stop watching. Actually, I wish I could change the channel but this is unfortunately happening in real life. It’s likely the ups and downs of drone sightings would be too far fetched for fiction anyway.

If you aren’t British, maybe you will know a little of our culture through the medium of television. We don’t all live in stately homes like Downton Abbey of course, instead we’re closer to the sometimes comedic sets, bad lighting, and ridiculously complicated lives of the residents of Coronation Street or of Albert Square in Eastenders that you may have flashed past late at night on a high-number channel.

Our new comedy soap lacks the regional accents of Emmerdale or Hollyoaks, but has no less of the farce about it. Here at Hackaday we’ve brought you news of the UK’s peculiar habit of bad reporting and shoddy investigation of questionable drone sightings several times over the last year or two. Most recently we covered a series of events before Christmas that closed Gatwick, London’s second airport for several days over what turned out to be nothing of substance.

Unfortunately it didn’t end there. We’re back once more to catch up with the latest events down on the tarmac, and come away with a fresh set of reasonable questions unanswered by the popular coverage of the matter.

Continue reading “Drone Sightings, A New British Comedy Soap Opera”

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.