Drone sighting halts flights at UK’s Heathrow Airport

All flights departing Heathrow, the U.K.’s largest airport, have been suspended following a reported drone sighting. An airport spokesperson told TechCrunch that staff are “working closely” with London’s Metropolitan Police, “to prevent any threat to operational safety.” “As a precautionary measure, we have stopped departures while we investigate,” the spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We apologize to […]

All flights departing Heathrow, the U.K.’s largest airport, have been suspended following a reported drone sighting.

An airport spokesperson told TechCrunch that staff are “working closely” with London’s Metropolitan Police, “to prevent any threat to operational safety.”

“As a precautionary measure, we have stopped departures while we investigate,” the spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We apologize to passengers for any inconvenience this may cause.”

The airport did not say who reported the drone.

The Metropolitan Police tweeted that it “received reports of a sighting of a drone” near Heathrow after 5:00pm local time, where commercial drones are programmed to not be allowed to fly, and that it was investigating.

Arriving flights are continuing to land at the airport, however.  Flight tracking site Flightradar24 showed shortly after departures were halted dozens of planes circling around Heathrow.

Flights circling around Heathrow Airport shortly after departures were halted. (Image: Flightradar24)

Heathrow Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world, seeing close to 80 million passengers travel through its terminals last year.

It’s the second reported drone sighting at a U.K. airport in as many months. Gatwick Airport south of London faced two days of disruption following a reported drone sighting just before Christmas. In the end, more than 1,000 flights were cancelled, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded. No arrests were made following the Gatwick incident the since a local couple were released without charge on December 23.

U.K. police were given new powers to fight drones, including an expansion of exclusion zones around airports.

Gatwick said that it had spent £5 million ($6.3m) on new technology to combat drone sightings, according to the BBC. Heathrow also said it would invest in new anti-drone technology.

A spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates U.K. airspace, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More as it comes in…

UK police to get more powers to curb drone misuse after Gatwick fiasco

The UK government has announced new powers for police to tackle illegal use of drone technology, including powers to land, seize and search drones. This follows the recent Gatwick drone fiasco when, just before Christmas, a spate of drone sightings near the airport caused a temporary shutdown of the runway, and disruptive misery for thousands of people at one of […]

The UK government has announced new powers for police to tackle illegal use of drone technology, including powers to land, seize and search drones.

This follows the recent Gatwick drone fiasco when, just before Christmas, a spate of drone sightings near the airport caused a temporary shutdown of the runway, and disruptive misery for thousands of people at one of the busiest travel times of the year.

“The police will have the power to search premises and seize drones — including electronic data stored within the device — where a serious offence has been committed and a warrant is secured,” the government writes in a press release today, trailing its plans for a forthcoming drone bill.

Police powers to ground drones had already been announced as incoming in late 2017. But the Gatwick chaos and some trenchant criticism about government complacency about the risks posed by misuse of the technology appears to have concentrated ministerial minds on finding a few extra deterrents for police.

Such as the power to demand drone owners produce proper documentation for their craft, tied to an incoming national registration scheme which will apply to all drones weighing 250 grams or more.

“The vast majority of drone users fly safely and responsibly, and adhere to the rules and regulations that are in place. However, if a drone is used illegally we must ensure that the police have the powers to enforce the law, and that the most up to date technology is available to detect, track and potentially disrupt the drone,” the government writes today in its official response to a public consultation on drone safety regulation, adding that: “The recent disruption to Gatwick airport operations, affecting tens of thousands of passengers in the run up to Christmas, was a stark example of why continued action is required to make sure drones are used safely and securely in the UK.”

Under the new plan, police forces may in future only need “reasonable suspicion” that an offence has been committed to request evidence from drone owners.

The government is also planning to give police the ability to issue fixed penalty notices of up to £100 for minor drone offences.

It says the new powers will be set out in detail a (long delayed) draft drone bill now due this year — having failed to materialize last Spring, as originally promised.

“The new measures proposed in the consultation, such as giving the police the power to request evidence from drone users where there is reasonable suspicion of an offence being committed, were met with strong support from respondents,” the government also writes.

In another post-Gatwick development, it is planning to beef up stop-gap flight restriction rules by expanding the current 1km flight exclusion zone around airports to circa 5km.

The 1km zone had been widely criticized as inadequate.

(Screenshot, from: Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK Government Response document)

All drone operators will be required to ask permission from an airport’s Air Traffic Control to fly within the larger exclusion zone, per the document.

The government says it does not believe the ~5km exclusion zone will prevent what it dubs a “deliberate incident” in itself. But suggests it will “help protect all arriving and departing aircraft using our aerodromes and avoid potential conflict with legitimate drone activity”.

Its response document also confirms the date for the previously announced drone registration scheme — saying this will come into force in November.

The government revealed the plan for a drone registration scheme in late 2017, when it said that owners of drones weighing more than 250 grams would in future be required to register their devices. But at the time of the Gatwick incident the scheme had not yet come into force.

Registration will apply from November 30, 2019, the government says now.

In a further announcement today, it say the Home Office will begin testing and assessing the “safe use” of a range of counter-drone technology in the UK.

“This crucial technology will detect drones from flying around sensitive sites, including airports and prisons, and develop a range of options to respond to drones, helping to prevent a repeat of incidents such as that recently experienced at Gatwick,” it writes.

Military grade counter-drone tech enabled Gatwick to reopen its runway despite continued drone sightings, according to the BBC, which reported last week that the airport had spent £5M to prevent future attacks (Gatwick did not disclose the exact system it had bought).

Commenting on the new policy measures, UK aviation minister, Liz Sugg, said in a statement: “Drones have the potential to bring significant benefits and opportunities, but with the speed of technological advancement comes risk, and safety and security must be our top priorities.

“That’s why we are giving the police powers to deal with those using drones irresponsibly. Along with additional safety measures these will help ensure the potential of this technology is harnessed in a responsible and safe way.”

UK police release airport drone suspects and admit there may not have been any drones after all

Less than a week after mystery drones grounded flights at the U.K’s second largest airport, wreaking havoc on as many as 140,000 people’s travel plans for the Christmas period, police have admitted that there may in fact not have been any drones at all. Gatwick airport reopened on Friday after a one-day shutdown but it appears that investigators […]

Less than a week after mystery drones grounded flights at the U.K’s second largest airport, wreaking havoc on as many as 140,000 people’s travel plans for the Christmas period, police have admitted that there may in fact not have been any drones at all.

Gatwick airport reopened on Friday after a one-day shutdown but it appears that investigators are no closer to knowing what actually took place.

The Guardian reports that police released and exonerated a couple who had been detained as suspects, while a senior police spokesperson said that there is “always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place.”

Indeed, the police are reliant on eyewitness accounts — 67 of them, to be precise — to piece together what happened. The BBC reported last week that two drones flying “over the perimeter fence and into where the runway operates from” were spotted by bystanders late Wednesday, with a third reportedly seen on Thursday morning. Runways were shut for around six hours between Wednesday evenings and the early hours of Thursday, before a fuller suspension came into effect after the alleged sighting of the third drone.

Police released suspects Elaine Kirk and Paul Gait on Sunday evening after concluding that they were not responsible for the incident. Their arrest had prompted British newspapers and commentators to berate the pair even before they were charged. The Mail on Sunday shamed them for “ruining Christmas” while TV presenter and former tabloid journalist Piers Morgan was forced to apologize for an earlier tweet that labeled Kirk and Gait as “clowns.”

Despite going down the wrong avenue with the arrest, investigators do have more to work with after they recovered a fallen and damaged drone from the north side of the airport. It is being tested for clues on who piloted it, according to The Guardian .

As we explained last week, the U.K. has specific laws around flying drones near an airport although it remains unclear exactly what did take place.

The U.K. made amendments to existing legislation this year to make illegal flying a drone within 1km of an airport after a planned drone bill got delayed.

The safety focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400 ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.

Under current U.K. law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travelers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.

Drones ground flights at UK’s second largest airport

Mystery drone operator/s have grounded flights at the U.K.’s second largest airport, disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people hoping to get away over the festive period. The BBC reports that Gatwick Airport’s runway has been shut since Wednesday night on safety grounds, after drones were spotted being flown repeatedly over the […]

Mystery drone operator/s have grounded flights at the U.K.’s second largest airport, disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people hoping to get away over the festive period.

The BBC reports that Gatwick Airport’s runway has been shut since Wednesday night on safety grounds, after drones were spotted being flown repeatedly over the airfield.

It says airlines have been advised to cancel all flights up to at least 16:00 GMT, with the airport saying the runway would not open “until it was safe to do so.”

More than 20 police units are reported to be searching for the drone operator/s.

The U.K. made amendments to existing legislation this year to make illegal flying a drone within 1km of an airport after a planned drone bill got delayed.

The safety focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400 ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.

Under current U.K. law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travelers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.

Further adding to the misery of disrupted passengers today, the Civil Aviation Authority told the BBC it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” — meaning airlines aren’t obligated to pay financial compensation.

There’s been a marked rise in U.K. aircraft incidents involving drones over the past five years, with more than 100 recorded so far this year, according to data from the U.K. Airprox Board.

Aviation minister Baroness Sugg faced a barrage of questions about the Gatwick disruption in the House of Lords today, including accusations the government has dragged its feet on bringing in technical specifications that might have avoided the disruption.

“These drones are being operated illegally… It seems that the drones are being used intentionally to disrupt the airport, but, as I said, this is an ongoing investigation,” she told peers, adding: “We changed the law earlier this year, bringing in an exclusion zone around airports. We are working with manufactures and retailers to ensure that the new rules are communicated to those who purchase drones.

“From November next year, people will need to register their drone and take an online safety test. We have also recently consulted on extending police powers and will make an announcement on next steps shortly.”

The minister was also pressed on what the government had done to explore counterdrone technology, which could be used to disable drones, with one peer noting they’d raised the very issue two years ago.

“My Lords, technology is rapidly advancing in this area,” responded Sugg. “That is absolutely something that we are looking at. As I said, part of the consultation we did earlier this year was on counterdrone technology and we will be announcing our next steps on that very soon.”

Another peer wondered whether techniques he said had been developed by the U.K. military and spy agency GCHQ — to rapidly identify the frequency a drone is operating on, and either jam it or take control and land it — will be “given more broadly to various airports”?

“All relevant parts of the Government, including the Ministry of Defence, are working on this issue today to try to resolve it as quickly as possible,” the minister replied. “We are working on the new technology that is available to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. It is not acceptable that passengers have faced such disruption ahead of Christmas and we are doing all we can to resolve it as quickly as possible.”