Drones shut down major international airport

About 11,000 passengers are crammed into Gatwick Airport, their flights grounded since last night as a drone operator repeatedly flew two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) close to the runway.

Flights can’t take off or land until it’s safe to do so, and that can’t happen until police find the operator.

Gatwick, a major international airport, is the UK’s second busiest.

The BBC reports that 110,000 passengers on 760 flights were due to arrive or depart today, with 2.9 million passengers due to pass through over the Christmas/New Year stretch.

Good luck with that. Travelers have been stuck on planes for hours, sleeping stretched out in seats or anywhere they could find as they waited for the all-clear, but every time airport authorities thought it might be safe, the drone buzzing would start again.

Gatwick, scrambling to provide all the food and water needed by the hoards of stranded people, has brought on extra staff to help out. Some people who were heading for sunny, warm holidays told a BBC Live reporter that they’ve been “left out in the cold”:

Megan Rayner: We are now in a hotel in Heathrow after being sat outside in the cold waiting for a coach transfer at 13:30 in the freezing cold with no coats (we are going on holiday to the Maldives) with my family – 16 of us in total including two babies.

Police are searching for whomever’s operating the holiday-ruining drones. They don’t think it’s terror-related; rather, they’re considering it a “deliberate act” of disruption by somebody using “industrial specification” drones.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling described the Gatwick situation as a “very serious ongoing incident in which substantial drones have been used to bring about the temporary closure of a major international airport”. He called for the stiffest possible punishment to be doled out to whoever’s responsible:

The people who were involved should face the maximum possible custodial sentence for the damage they have done.

UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said that the perpetrators will be caught and will, in fact, face a prison sentence.

People are baffled, asking 1) why a few drones are such a big deal, and 2) why police can’t just shoot them down.

The answers: drones getting anywhere near aircraft are a big deal because they can get sucked into engines and down the craft. They’re similar to birds: flocks of birds have been blamed for bringing down scores of small planes and causing at least two major US disasters.

In the UK, a helicopter crash left five people dead in Leicester City. The cause of that deadly crash hasn’t yet been determined, but aviation experts have suggested that the helicopter’s loss of power to the tail rotor could have been caused by a large bird or a large drone.

As far as shooting them down goes, police can’t, because of 1) the danger of stray bullets harming people, and 2) the danger of somebody getting hit by a disabled drone crashing to the ground.

Airline sources told the BBC that the disruption could last several days and that as of Thursday, flights had been cancelled until at least 19:00 GMT. Airlines are saying that the disruption will stretch into Friday.

The BBC is providing live updates here.

On Thursday morning, officials from the Department for Transport, Home Office, the police and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat were among a cross-government contingent involved in a meeting about the crisis held at the Prime Minister’s office.

Meanwhile, the Army is reportedly deploying “specialist equipment” to handle the drones.

What that is, we can’t say, though we’ve seen all manner of solutions suggested through the years, be it sound (technically, resonant frequencies used in acoustic weapons), birds of prey, nets shot out of bigger drones, or jamming a drone’s radio to force it to auto-land.

Above all else, whatever technique is used has to avoid having the drone turn into a juggernaut as it loses control, and possibly plummet toward people on the ground.

Our thoughts are with those stranded at Gatwick; we hope you make it to your destinations safely and that holiday joy will eventually be yours.

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