Well, you had to figure this kind of thing was coming. After the UK’s second-busiest airport was forced to close in recent days because of rogue operators flying drones too close to the facility — which in turn forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, leaving more than 100,000 holiday travelers stranded – police around the Gatwick Airport, south of London, had to sort to extreme measures to neutralize the drone threat. How extreme? Officials aren’t being very specific (for obvious reasons) but it turns out the solution that allowed Gatwick to finally reopen included the deployment of “military-grade” technology.
According to the British newspaper The Independent, Gatwick’s sole runway was reopened Friday morning “with a range or protection and surveillance measures reportedly put in place to prevent further chaos.” Police also made some arrests, but confusion around this bizarre series of events only multiplied this weekend as British press reported that those arrested were released and that Sussex police were making house-to-house inquiries near where the drones had been previously spotted.
Meanwhile, The Independent interviewed a former British Army logistics officer who walked through some of the technologies likely being used to keep drones at bay and to allow the Gatwick Airport to resume normal operations. Those “military-grade” technologies (to use the newspaper’s terminology) could include radar and signal jammers, though the newspaper also speculates that whoever was controlling these drones was probably not using a radio to do it. Longer-term, the paper points to laser technology as one solution.
Earlier this year, in fact, The Independent reported that Chinese researchers have been testing a handheld laser device that, when fired, could hit targets from as far as a half mile away. Likewise, the US military is working on laser technology that could bring down a drone.
What’s made the Gatwick situation so newsworthy is the fact that this was, relatively speaking, an unsophisticated attack. We use the word ‘attack,’ because there are indications this was definitely deliberate. According to a CNN report, Sussex police superintendent Justin Burtenshaw told the UK Press Association that “Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears. When we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears.” So, it was clearly purposeful.
It was also reportedly the first time an airport anywhere in the world has been forced to temporarily halt operations because of drones flying too close. But, again, it was just some people flying drones. Imagine what kind of damage, and how much could be ground to halt, if a sophisticated hacker were trying to do the same thing.