Drone chaos exposes infrastructure security failings

The 36-hour shutdown of Gatwick Airport in December and the ensuing travel chaos has highlighted the issue of infrastructure security, says Andy Walker.

The news that police will be given new powers to tackle the illegal use of drones, will come as cold comfort to the tens of thousands of airline passengers whose Christmas travel plans were thrown into chaos when flights from Gatwick Airport were suspended for more than 36 hours in December after drones were reported over the airfield.

At a time when the government (and the London mayor) are keen to highlight that the capital is open for business, the spectacle of one of the city’s main transport infrastructure hubs being shut down as a result of drones being flown willy-nilly over the airfield by persons still unknown was something of an embarrassment. The shambles which ensued has highlighted the issue of just how safe the nation’s infrastructure is from malicious attack. 

The government can’t say they weren’t warned about the danger of drone attacks, with the number of aircraft incidents involving drones increasing significantly in the past few years. In 2013 there were no incidents, compared with more than 100 last year. The airline pilots’ association have also been raising the issue for years, arguing for technology to be deployed to block drones around airports and the government itself launched a consultation into the use of drones in July last year. 

The government now say that the area around airports where drones are banned from flying will be extended. Last year they made it illegal to fly a drone above 400ft (120m) or within 1km (0.62 miles) of an airport and the exclusion zone will now be extended to the current Air Traffic Zone around airports, which is approximately a 5km (3.1 miles) radius, with additional extensions from runway ends.

Labour said action on drones should have been taken years ago. Shadow transport minister Andy McDonald said while he welcomed the measures taken, they should have been introduced sooner. “Labour has repeatedly warned Department for Transport ministers over the last several years that they needed to take action on drones yet nowhere near enough has been done,” he said. 

McDonald claimed that the failure to bring forward detailed plans on drones had “disastrous consequences” and it was “astonishing” that the government had little or no procedures in place to tackle the events at Gatwick airport. Embattled transport secretary Chris Grayling has come under renewed attack for the government’s failure to act on drones. Given the importance of Gatwick and other transport hubs to the nation’s economy, you’d think that the government would have acted quicker to address its infrastructure security issues.

Speaking to MPs in parliament following the Gatwick chaos, Grayling said that the problems at the airport had been resolved by “smart and innovative use of new technology”, but he wouldn’t reveal what this was for “security reasons”. He also said that the Ministry of Defence would be “on standby” to deal with any future issues caused by drones at airports.

To date, no one has been charged with any offence over the drone flights. It remains to be seen whether the events at Gatwick and now Heathrow were isolated incidents or whether other infrastructure hubs are similarly disrupted in future. You’d have to hope that the government will be better prepared next time.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email