A photo of Heathrow Airport in London.
A drone sighting shut down Heathrow Airport, just weeks after a similar episode at London's Gatwick Airport. Matt Dunham/AP

Heathrow Airport was briefly shut down after a drone sighting, and Gatwick Airport endured three days of drone-related security delays.  

For London’s airports, the weeks straddling the new year have been chaotic to say the least. Yesterday, Heathrow—Europe’s busiest airport—closed its runway briefly following a security alert. In normal times, this inconvenience wouldn’t attract much attention, but this alert came after Gatwick, London’s second airport, was forced to close for 36 hours, stretching over three days. The stoppages grounded 1,000 planes and affected the holiday journeys of an estimated 140,000 people. But it wasn’t (as far as we know) a terrorist threat or a staff strike that caused these disruptions. It was sighting of that small but increasingly ubiquitous and reviled item of contemporary electronic equipment: the drone.

Indeed, the past month has seen drones become something of an obsession around London. Over the past three weeks, the region’s police, air traffic controllers, and even its armed forces have been squinting at the sky, trying to work out if tiny airborne intruders are heading for its runways. At Gatwick on December 19, over 60 people claimed to have spotted a drone or drones close to the terminal. Infuriatingly, the drones seemed to reappear just at the point when the airport was about to start flights again, triggering a gridlock of frustrated passengers in the terminals.

Passengers left grounded at London’s Gatwick following drone sightings on December 20. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

What made the shutdown yet stranger is that no drone was ever caught on camera, although police insist they were indeed present. In a period when British public life is already somewhat disordered and hysterical, people even started to wonder if the drones weren’t a collective figment of the imagination, some feverish embodiment of the spirit of the ongoing Brexit meltdown.

A couple of local drone enthusiasts were hauled in for questioning and released without charges, but unfortunately not before they had been demonized in the media and targeted with death threats for a crime they apparently had no connection to. As yet, no culprit has in fact emerged, though police are now looking into a possible connection between the two episodes.

Is is really necessary to halt a capital city’s air traffic because of a buzzy consumer gizmo that can be as small as a shoebox? Apparently, yes. Drones can indeed pose some degree of threat to airliners in the event of a mid-air collision. As this Financial Times article notes, a larger, two-kilogram drone could critically damage an airplane’s windshield, an event that might feasibly in the worse cases bring the plane down. FAA testing has documented the dangers of having drones ingested by aircraft engines. And, as this video made by researchers at the University of Dayton shows, even a smaller 1-kilo drone can cause major damage to an airliner’s wing if they meet at more than 200 miles per hour.

Accordingly, on Monday Britain’s government granted the police more powers to ground drones, albeit with rules that won’t be in place until this November. From the late autumn, any drone owner with an apparatus weighing over 250 grams (8.8 ounces) will have to register their ownership and take an online drone piloting competence course. Meanwhile, small fines will be levied for offenses such as failing to land a drone immediately on police request. While piloting a drone in close proximity to an airport is already illegal, these rules should still make it easier for the authorities to control amateur drone enthusiasts.

They would not, however, do much to prevent someone with genuinely malicious intent from disrupting air travel. For that, the U.K. needs some form of drone-blocking shield—something it actually bought for the army in August 2018 in the form of the Israeli Drone Dome System. This system enables operators to track drones within a wide radius then electronically sever the drone’s connection with its operator, causing it to fall. London’s airports are being chary about exactly what they are installing, but it seems likely they now have something akin to this system in place.

Indeed, such a system’s prompt installation could be the reason why Heathrow’s stoppage yesterday was so short, compared to Gatwick’s 36 silent hours. Considering December’s shutdown cost both Gatwick Airport and the airlines that use it over $25 million, whatever cash Britain’s aviation authorities dole out to defeat this drone invasion would seem to be money well spent.

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