The Gatwick drone incident that has seen the holiday plans of tens of thousands of passengers disrupted has led to both deep concern and suspicion from drone pilots.
Gatwick airport is expected to remain closed until at least lunchtime as police continue attempts to bring down the drone currently flying in the area. The efforts have now lasted over 13 hours, with some reporting seeing more than one drone in the airport’s vicinity.
The culprit is at present unknown, however the assailant has largely been characterised in media coverage so far as a likely hobbyist with little disregard for the safety of others.
However, the nature of the incident has led many with expertise in drone operation to question this theory.
Why the person responsible for the Gatwick drone incident probably isn’t a hobbyist
It is illegal for drones to be flown within 1km of an airport, but there have been a number of incidents where a hobbyist has failed to respect the law and caused chaos in the process.
Generally professional drone pilots have not been responsible for this type of incident, as they typically operate with far stricter rules and are more aware of the damage such incidents can do to their own industry.
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However, this incident differs from those in the past because of the length of time involved, and that has led many drone professionals to question who is really behind it.
“I am horrified by this and feel for those affected. Something very fishy going on and I don’t think we are getting the full story,” tweeted Nick Lewis (@nicklewis), a photographer who uses drones professionally.
This suspicion was echoed by others in the industry, with two issues in particular highlighted as reasons why the drone being used was unlikely to be a consumer model.
One is that fact that many newer consumer models are designed to be unable to fly so close to an airport. The second, more significant issue is battery life.
According to Dronethusiast, the best consumer drone models have a flight time of between 17 and 25 minutes. This would mean that for this incident to be pulled off, the culprit would have to be constantly changing the battery, requiring a large number of spares to constantly switch out in order to continue their interference for 13 hours and counting.
If this were the case, it would be relatively easy to track their location by monitoring where the drone was returning to every 20 minutes, which given the length of time the incident has lasted for does not seem to be the case.
The alternative is that the activity is being carried out by a coordinated group with multiple drones, a notion that is supported by reports of multiple drones being spotted at once. However, this indicates something more sophisticated than bored hobbyists, particularly given how long the activity is occurring for.
Why are the culprits doing this?
As more news emerges, it looks increasingly likely that the Gatwick drone incident is a coordinated effort by multiple people, although their motives remain unclear.
A spokesman for Sussex Police has told the BBC that “There is absolutely nothing to suggest that this is terrorism-related.”
Nevertheless, the timing makes this an exceptionally disruptive act, selected at one of the most impactful times of year.
This, combined with the calls for greater drone regulation that have naturally followed, have led some to speculate that this is an attempt to harm the drone industry, while others have suggested it may be part of a wider climate protest.
If this is a political act, it is likely that those responsible will make themselves known. In the meantime, efforts continue to stop the disruption and find the culprits.