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.
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.
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].
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].
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.