LONDON — It is likely one of the busiest airports in Europe. It survived World War II, when it served as a base for R.A.F. night time fighters flying missions towards Nazi Germany. It has simply been dropped at a standstill by the common-or-garden drone.
Gatwick Airport was closed to air site visitors for greater than 24 hours — on the peak of the vacation season, no much less — amid repeated incursions by flying gizmos of the kind which may by present in a field in a hobbyist store.
“This hasn’t happened anywhere in the world before,” mentioned Richard Gill, the founder and chief govt of Drone Defence, which helps establishments guard their perimeters towards drones.
The Gatwick shutdown scrambled lots of of flights, stranded tens of 1000’s of passengers and diminished the British authorities to enjoying cat-and-mouse with the drones. Controlled, maybe, by little greater than an iPad, they have been repeatedly despatched over the runway of the nation’s second-largest airport in what officers known as a “deliberate act.”
On Thursday, about 20 police items searched the perimeter of the airfield for the drones’ operators. By dusk, the federal government mentioned it might deploy the navy in a bid to reopen the airport, although it was not clear what its position could be.
Police sharpshooters have been noticed at Gatwick, although officers at one level had precluded that choice, citing the chance of a stray bullet hitting somebody.
Flights have been canceled via at the least 6 a.m. Friday morning.
With the authorities nonetheless at a loss over what to do, the episode was proving not solely a humiliation for aviation officers but in addition the starkest proof to this point of how weak airports the world over are to the available flying units.
“Over 90 percent of airports in the world are unprepared for drones,” mentioned Tim Bean, the founder and chief govt of Fortem Technologies, which is testing a drone protection system on a number of American runways. “Airports, stadiums, borders, oil and gas refineries — they spend a lot of money on ground security, but I think they now need to think about their airspace security.”
As hobbyists and malfeasants alike flip neighborhood parks into airports, the newly democratized skies have gotten more and more crowded.
The variety of plane scares involving drones recorded by the British authorities has shot as much as greater than 100 this 12 months; there have been none in 2013. In Mexico and Canada, planes recently survived collisions with what appeared to be drones.
The authorities have so far released little information about the type of drones that were buzzing Gatwick, though airport officials said they captured surveillance footage of them. “As yet, the drone has not been identified,” the Sussex Police said in a statement.
Airport staff members first spotted a pair of drones flying over the perimeter fence and into the runway area around 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Officials shut the runway, then reopened it around 3 a.m. on Thursday before closing it again about 45 minutes later when there was another sighting. Yet another drone was spotted late Thursday morning, and people kept spotting drones through Thursday night. In all, the police said there were 50 reports of drone sightings, though some were duplicates or unconfirmed.
Police officials said there were “no indications to suggest this is terror related.”
At least 800 flights were canceled, disrupting traffic throughout Europe and affecting upward of 100,000 passengers. Arriving flights carrying 10,000 passengers were diverted, with some travelers forced to land at airports as far away as Paris.
The shutdown created bedlam at the south terminal of Gatwick, which is about 25 miles south of central London and is regularly rated Europe’s worst airport and one of the worst in the world. Long lines of weary passengers stretched from the check-in counters to the arrivals area of an adjacent building.
Passengers slumped over their luggage, refreshing their smartphone screens every few minutes for updates. Others sat staring into space, looking utterly defeated.
“Who around here can give me some information?” Gary Hornby, 47, shouted after cursing at an airport staff member.
“When the hell are we getting out of here?” he went on, kicking his suitcase.
Some passengers were baffled at how poorly prepared the airport seemed.
“This is a huge security risk,” said Alison Carter, 44, a teacher of German. “How does the airport not have the resources to down the drone? What kind of message does this give to terrorists and criminals?”
Technology companies have invented several drone defense systems, but they are relatively new, and airports and government officials are still weighing which to invest in. One system that was recently deployed to stop drug smuggling at an English prison acts as an electronic fence, blocking radio signals around a prison whenever drones are detected.
Mr. Gill, the founder of Drone Defence — which made the electronic fence — said that airports were technologically complex landscapes and that officials were studying all the available options. He said the mishap at Gatwick would concentrate people’s minds on the potential dangers.
The system developed Fortem Technologies uses a sophisticated radar system to detect intruder drones, and then sends a drone hunter to pluck them out of the sky, dog-fighing with them, if necessary. The system is already being used to monitor two runways at Salt Lake City International Airport and others, he said.
Other anti-drone systems that were the focus of years of study by airports were rendered obsolete when drones evolved beyond using radio frequency signals, Mr. Bean said.
British laws make it illegal to fly a drone within a kilometer — about three-fifths of a mile — of airport boundaries. Violators are subject to five years in prison. Some British politicians called on Thursday night for that exclusion zone to be expanded.
And as of next Nov. 30, owners of drones weighing more than 250 grams, or a bit more than half a pound, will have to register them with the Civil Aviation Authority, and those who fly them will have to pass an online safety test. Not following these steps could result in fines of as much as $1,270.
Airports have been shut down before over drone sightings — including Gatwick, which was closed after sightings in July 2017. Airports in Chengdu, China; Dubai, the United Arab Emirates; and Ottawa have also had to shut down.
Many drones have internal GPS software that prevents pilots from flying them into restricted areas like airports. But Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in drones, said the systems were imperfect and could be subverted by people who understood their workings.
And they can do a lot of damage.
“The danger is pretty much the same as with birds: A drone may get caught in an engine during takeoff and landing,” Ms. Franke said. “It’s plastic, metal and lithium batteries that can explode.”