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.