December 21, 2018

An extended version of this article will appear in the Q4 2018 issue of WorldAware’s Airline Safety Newsletter.

On Dec. 19, authorities at London Gatwick Airport (LGW), the second-busiest airport in the UK, suspended all flight operations at the airport due to reports that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, were flying near the airport. The airport remained closed through Dec. 20 as the drone activity continued, forcing airlines to cancel over 750 flights and disrupting over 100,000 passengers. LGW again suspended flight operations on Dec. 21 after further reports of drone activity over the runway. Authorities had reopened the runway earlier in the day after there had been no drone sightings during the night of Dec. 20-21.

The Gatwick incident demonstrates how drone activity can significantly disrupt the commercial airline industry, and how little authorities are currently able to do to stop drone operations near airports.

Below, WorldAware’s intelligence and security experts have answered frequently asked questions and concerns that stemmed from this incident.


Has anything like this ever happened before?

No. The Gatwick incident is the first time that drone activity has caused an extended disruption to operations at a major commercial airport. However, reports of drones flying near airports are becoming more common. UK officials reported 92 incidents of drones flying near commercial airliners in 2017, up from 71 in 2016 and 29 in 2015.


Could a drone cause an airliner to crash?

The threat that a drone poses to a commercial airliner depends on the type of drone and the manner in which it is being used. Most small drones do not pose a significant threat to commercial airliners, but certain larger drones could pose a safety threat, especially if used in a malicious manner.

Most commercially available drones are under 5 kg (11 lbs) and would not pose a significant threat to a commercial airliner in a collision. The impact from such a drone would be similar to a bird strike, which is a relatively common incident in commercial aviation and is part of an airliner’s certification standards. It has been over 30 years since a bird strike caused a fatal commercial airliner crash. Like bird strikes, a small drone collision could damage an airliner, especially if it hit the airliner’s engine or windscreen, but the airliner would be able to continue flying for a safe landing.

In October 2018, University of Dayton researchers posted a video of a commercially available drone doing significant damage to an aircraft wing when it was fired into the wing in a lab, but the aircraft wing in the video was from a small single-engine private aircraft that was designed over 50 years ago, which is significantly less robust than a modern commercial airliner’s wing.

Larger drones are less common but pose a greater threat to airliners. Initial reports suggest that the drones spotted near Gatwick were larger models primarily used for commercial applications, not the smaller ones that casual users typically operate. These larger drones could cause significant damage to an airliner in a collision, which under some circumstances might be sufficient to cause the airliner to crash.


Can authorities stop a drone?

As of now, no, unless they catch the drone operator. The lengthy disruption caused by continued drone operations at Gatwick Airport demonstrates that authorities are unable to safely disable drones operating near an airport. Authorities reportedly considered shooting down the drones but chose not to do so because of concerns that the bullets or the drones themselves would fall on populated areas. Other options, such as firing a weapon at the drone that captures it with a net, have limited range and are unproven. Some companies claim to have technology that disrupts communications between drones and their operators but using jamming technology in populated areas can have significant unintended consequences. Authorities are also concerned about the behavior of a drone once its operator is no longer in control, especially when dealing with larger drones such as those reportedly used near Gatwick.


Has a commercial airliner ever hit a drone?

Maybe. There has been no official confirmation of collisions between drones and airliners, although media outlets have reported several unconfirmed collisions. The most credible reports of collisions were two in Buenos Aires, Argentina in late 2017. One reported collision left a small dent on the airliner just below the cockpit, while the other caused minor damage to one of the airliner’s engines. Argentine authorities have not confirmed either incident. Most other reports of drone strikes have been disproven. A reported collision between an airliner and a drone near London Heathrow Airport (LHR) in April 2016 received significant media attention, but officials later confirmed that the aircraft had struck a plastic bag.


Could terrorists put explosives on a drone and use it to attack an airliner?

In theory, yes, but downing a commercial airliner with such an attack would be challenging. Small, commercially available drones would only be able to carry a small number of explosives, meaning any explosion would have to occur very close to a critical part of the airliner’s structure in order to cripple the aircraft. Small amounts of explosives can down an airliner at higher altitude, as the pressure differential between the airliner’s cabin and the outside air greatly increases the damage caused by the explosion, but this would not be a factor at the low altitudes where a drone-based attack would occur. The drone operator would therefore have to fly the drone very close to the airliner’s wings, tail, or cockpit, then detonate it at the right moment in order to have a chance to cripple the aircraft. Given the speed at which airliners fly, such an attack would be very difficult, but not impossible to execute.


Are we going to see more drone disruptions at airports?

Likely yes. The Gatwick incident will likely inspire copycat incidents at other airports. The massive disruptions caused by the drone activity will likely be attractive to a wide variety of activist groups as well as individuals simply seeking to cause chaos. The high financial costs of the disruption could also make drone incidents attractive to criminal groups, who could threaten to shut down an airport using drones until they receive a payment. The Gatwick incident and potential copycat actions will likely lead authorities to increase investment in technology designed to disable drones or detect their operators, and to establish stronger procedures for dealing with deliberately disruptive drone activity near airports.

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