Gatwick's draft master plan for future expansion includes the acquisition ("safeguarding") of land near Crawley (just beyond the left in this image) for a third runway. Image: Gatwick Airport

Gatwick drones: Sussex police arrest two suspects from adjacent town

Security • law enforcement • countermeasures

Sussex police have arrested two suspects in the drone incidents at Gatwick Airport this week, in the town adjacent to the airport. The Sussex Police said:

As part of our ongoing investigations into the criminal use of drones which has severely disrupted flights in and out of Gatwick Airport, Sussex Police made two arrests just after 10pm on Friday (December 21). […] A 47-year-old man and a 54-year-old woman, both from Crawley, were arrested in the town on suspicion of disrupting services of civil aviation aerodrome to endanger or likely to endanger safety of operations or persons. They remained in custody at 11am on Saturday.

British media identified the suspects as Paul Gait and his wife Elaine Kirk.

The town of Crawley is situated just south of Gatwick Airport, with fields between the airport and the town, on land that Gatwick has expressed interest in acquiring for a possible new runway in their draft master plan for expansion published in October. The draft plan is in public consultation until January 10.

The police did not communicate a possible motive of the suspects. However, the addition of a new runway south of the airport abutting the town of Crawley, and the regular use of Gatwick’s standby runway for takeoffs of smaller aircraft, would mean a dramatic increase in the area’s noise level. A local group founded in 2014, Communities Against Gatwick Noise Emission (CAGNE), was roundly condemned this week after describing the quiet as “an early Christmas present for those that suffer aircraft noise” while tens of thousands of holiday travellers were in limbo.

Drones are noisy at low altitudes, and relatively novel, so it is possible that neighbors of the suspects were aware of their interest in drones. The inability of the police to locate the drone pilot(s) in proximity to the airport could be a clue that their base was in the town. The police continued to appeal for witnesses, saying: “We continue to urge the public, passengers and the wider community around Gatwick to be vigilant and support us by contacting us immediately if they believe they have any information that can help us in bringing those responsible to justice.”

Gatwick appeared unprepared for the first appearance of drones in its airspace, despite warnings for years from pilots and security consultants concerning the risk to aviation from inexpensive and readily available drones, and the availability of systems to track and neutralize drones. Four years ago, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) warned in a white paper [PDF]:

Sightings of RPAS [Remotely Piloted Air Systems] by pilots in airborne aircraft are being reported at a rate on the order of 100 per month. It seems implausible that all these encounters are by commercial users, so ALPA’s conclusion is that a large number of noncommercial, recreational RPAS are being operated well above any recommended maximum altitude and within close proximity to busy airports.

Current UK law forbids c-drone operation within 1km (.6mi) of an airport; in the United States, the exclusion zone without special permission is 5 miles (8km), while in France, the limit is 5km (3mi) with altitude restrictions further out [PDF].

The UK military have installed a long-range drone tracking system covering Gatwick Airport, possibly flown in from a deployment overseas, which appears to be the Drone Dome system manufactured in Israel by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. In August, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the UK had procured several such anti-drone systems, sometimes called counter-unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS). The Rafael systems can identify and track drones with radar, electro-optical (EO) identification, and long-range thermal imaging (LRTI) with components from fellow Israeli firms Controp, Netline and RADA. The system is sold with two “soft kill” options — radiofrequency (RF) jamming and water jets — and a “hard kill” option, a computer-aimed laser capable of frying its target; Jane’s indicated the UK chose the RF jamming option. The police apparently have also used DJI’s Aeroscope.

Drone Defence, a UK provider of anti-drone solutions based in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, markets a drone detection and interdiction solution for airports, as does Polish firm Advanced Protection Systems (ctrl+sky) and Metis Aerospace with Skyperion. Italy’s Leonardo sells the Falcon Shield tracking unit. US-based Fortem Technologies (see our recent interview with Fortem at NYC’s Unmanned Security Expo) and Dedrone Inc. are other companies active in the sector.