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].

The UK Drone Community Fights Back, Gains FOI Admission Of No Tangible Drone Evidence

Regular Hackaday readers will have noted a succession of stories following the reports of drones in the air over British airports and in proximity to aircraft. We’ve consistently asked for a better quality of investigation and reporting into these cases, because so far the absence of reported tangible evidence of a drone being present casts doubt on the validity of the official reaction. For too long the official records of air proximity incidents have relied upon a shockingly low standard of proof when apportioning blame to drone operators, and this situation has contributed to something of a panic over the issue.

It seems that some members of the British drone flying community are on the case though. Airprox Reality Check are a group analysing air proximity reports and linking them to contemporary ADS-B and weather records to identify possible explanations. They have devised a rating system based upon a number of different metrics in an attempt to quantify the reliability of a particular report, and they are tabulating their analysis of air proximity reports on a month by month basis. This includes among many analyses such gems as Airprox Report #2019046, in which an Embraer 170 flying at 9000 feet and 20 km offshore reported a drone in close proximity. The Airprox Reality Check analysis points out that no known drone could manage that feat, and refers to a passing Boeing 737 revealed through ADS-B data as a more likely culprit.

Their latest news is that they have made a Freedom of Information request to the Air Proximity Board, asking for what evidence the Board has of a drone having been involved in any of the over 350 incidents in UK airspace having been reported as involving drones. The official response contains the following quote:

in all cases UKAB has no confirmation that a drone has flown close to an aircraft other than the report made by the pilot(s). Similarly, other than from the report of the pilot(s), UKAB has no confirmation that a drone was involved.

This confirms the view of the multirotor and drone community that has been reported by Hackaday in the past, that the whole British drone panic has been based upon unreliable and uncorroborated reports from eyewitnesses with little direct experience of multirotors. If any irresponsible drone operator is flying into close proximity with aircraft or otherwise into protected airspace then it goes without saying that they should be prosecuted, yet it seems that the community is being punished as though this had happened when the reality is that no such acts are proven to have occurred.