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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
London is one of those cities with an identity problem when it comes to airports. There is no one London airport, instead a group of airports serve the city at various distances from it. London Gatwick is the second largest of these, and sits with its single runway in the Sussex countryside about 30 miles south of the city.
If you follow British news sources, you may have heard a little about Gatwick in the last couple of days. Its runway was closed for two short periods and a selection of flights were diverted, because of what is being reported as a drone sighting. This is an extremely serious matter, responsible multirotor owners will be painfully aware of the distance and altitude regulations surrounding flights near airports.
If you are familiar with the way that drone stories are reported by the mass media, you will probably not need to click on the link above to the BBC reporting to find out its tone. There is significant concern within the multirotor community that it presents a very one-sided view, and takes at face value the assertion that the sighting was a drone, when in fact there is no proof at all of that being the case. For those of us who have seen many such stories come and go it is difficult not to agree with the drone pilots, there is at best some lazy reporting in the air, and at worst some outright journalistic irresponsibility.
As Hackaday readers, you are used to writers with an in-depth knowledge of the subjects upon which they write. We don’t know all possible facets of technology and we occasionally get things wrong, but we all have very strong backgrounds in the tech, hacker, and maker industries and communities we write about. We have engineering education, we’ve worked in a wide variety of technology industries, we build our own stuff for fun, and we’ve founded and run hackspaces.
By comparison the journalists whose work you will read in the mainstream media are generalists. They will have a specific educational background and a particular set of interests, but in their work they cover whatever stories tumble off the endless conveyor belt of events. Thus when a drone story appears, they find themselves out of their normal comfort zone of politics or local news, and can not rely on their experience to inform their coverage of it. The responsible journalistic approach is to do a little research and ask the pertinent questions asking for concrete proof of drone involvement. We’re still waiting for that to happen in these allege drone encounters.
Multirotor building and flying is a significant feature of our community, and anything that brings the attention of law enforcement to the kind of work we do should be a worry to us all. Multirotors are not the only things covered by Hackaday that could be misrepresented in the same way. We’ve visited this topic before, take a look at our analysis of a series of air proximity reports blamed on drones. Some of them, you couldn’t make up.