Drones: No Longer Flying Under the Radar

The Gatwick Airport shutdown highlights how drones are becoming a major hazard for airports, airlines and the travelling public – and potentially more dangerous than bird strikes.

Bernard O’Riordan

The 36-hour shutdown of London’s Gatwick Airport following a suspected drone raid has reignited calls for the flying hazards to be better regulated.

Unknown drone operators are alleged to have paralysed Britain’s second-busiest airport in the run up to Christmas, stranding travellers as 760 flights in the UK and Continental Europe were cancelled.

More than 43 million passengers pass through Gatwick Airport every year, with around 120,000 travellers due to pass through the airport on the day of drone incident.

Authorities had no choice but to shut down the airport, about 45 kilometres south of London, fearing a commercial passenger jet could be brought down.

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Gatwick Airport CEO Stewart Wingate takes to Twitter to apologise to travellers.

Related: Gatwick: police examine damaged drone after releasing former suspects

It’s not the first time airports have been paralysed by recreational drones. Gatwick briefly shut its runway last year when a drone was spotted, while Dubai International was briefly closed in 2016.

Earlier this year, New Zealand’s main hub, Wellington Airport, was closed for 30 minutes when a mystery craft was spotted near the runway. A water-bombing plane fighting bushfires was even grounded in Australia on Christmas Day when a drone entered its air space.

Harsher Penalties

Given the surge in rogue operators over recent months, governments and aviation bodies are poised to crack down even harder on the use of drones, especially with larger craft potentially being used as a mode of transportation, both for goods and people, in the not too distant future.

They are also considering much harsher penalties for offenders, given the unthinkable risk that drones could actually bring down a passenger aircraft.

From January 2019, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) will roll out new technology that’s able to identify the serial number on rogue drones, allowing it to alert authorities of the location of the controller.

The Australian Airports Association (AAA), which represents some 260 airports and aerodromes in Australia, and the Virgin Independent Pilots Association, which represents Virgin Australia group pilots, also wants a national register of drone owners.

It’s pushing for no-fly zones to embedded in the firmware of any unmanned aircraft weighing more than 2 kg.

Similar efforts are underway in the US, where authorities are drafting standards requiring all but the tiniest drones to broadcast their identity and position so authorities could identify operators who have crossed the line.

The Law As It Stands

The law is pretty clear about recreational drone use in most jurisdictions, and penalties for violation can be severe.

In the UK, drones aren’t allowed to fly within 1 kilometre of airports and can’t go above 400 feet to avoid conflict with flight paths.

In Australia, drones cannot fly within three nautical miles, or 5.5 kilometres, of an airport. They are also banned from operating on or above runways, taxiways or in the approach and departure paths of an airport.

Recreational drone operators must comply with CASA’s rules (known as its standard operating conditions). CASA has also launched a website to educate the more than 50,000 drone owners in Australia.

A drone would cause far greater damage to an aircraft than a bird strike.

But as the Gatwick incident shows, there will always be some people who intentionally flout the laws for kicks, or even more sinister intentions, just as they have done with laser pointers.

The real risk is that drones could get sucked into a jet engine or crash through a windshield, incapacitating the pilot.

A study by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US found a drone would cause far greater damage to a commercial aircraft than a bird strike of the same size and speed because drone components are much harder – birds are composed mostly of water.

Australia’s “No Drone Zone”

The use of drones is soaring to new heights, particularly as their cost has decreased. But if you break the rules, you can be hit with thousands of dollars in fines and potentially jail time. 



In most Australian cities, you can only fly your drone up to a maximum altitude of 120 metres – most of this airspace is considered controlled airspace. 



If your drone weighs more than 100 grams, you cannot fly it within 5.5 kilometres of a controlled airport if aircraft are operating to or from the airport. Some parts of Sydney Harbour are also off limits.



You must not fly the drone within 30 metres of other people; you can only fly a drone during daylight hours; and it must be in your line of sight at all times.

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