A jet lands at London Gatwick Airport on Friday. The airport had been closed for over a day after a drone repeatedly flew nearby.
Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Shoot it down. Jam it. Use a missile or maybe a net.
There’s no shortage of ideas about how to stop a drone, but as the past few days at London’s Gatwick Airport show, the reality is far more difficult.
From Wednesday to Friday, flights in and out of Gatwick were halted after a small drone, or perhaps multiple drones, were spotted over the airfield. Hundreds of flights were canceled and thousands of passengers saw their holiday travel plans grounded.
“We had seen drones interfering with air traffic at airports all over the world in the last few years, but we have never seen something on this scale,” says Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Michel says the goal appeared to have been to disrupt operations at Gatwick for as long as possible.
“What’s incredible is that they achieved exactly that effect with very accessible technology that can be bought online for a few hundred dollars,” he says.
Michel says that to stop a drone, you first need to find it, and that’s not easy to do. “A drone is very small. The airspace is very large,” he says. Commercial airliners carry transponders, little radio beacons that allow air traffic control to track their movements precisely. But drones are not required to have transponders. And many are too small to be easily tracked with conventional radar.
British authorities have deployed a range of measures, including helicopters, police officers on the ground, and a military-grade system to find the drone or drones.
But even once they’ve found it, they will have to do something to stop it. It might seem simplest to just blow it out of the sky, but that’s not really an option. “You can’t just fire weapons haphazardly in what is a built-up area around the airport,” Chris Grayling, the U.K.’s secretary of state for transport, told the BBC’s Today program on Friday.