Was the Gatwick drone a ‘Phantom’?

Posted on January 7, 2019


OK, first off, let me apologise for the appalling pun in the title. I’ve worked alongside John Murray for too long to let that one slip by unused. Second off, if you didn’t get the pun, this is really embarrassing because now I have to explain it…

A range of drones made by Chinese tech company DJI is known as the ‘Phantom’ range, such as the Phantom 3, Phantom 4 (the one we use at Engage Web) and the Phantom 4 Pro. The huge news story just before Christmas saw Gatwick airport shut down for a sustained period because of a number of drone sightings, but no drone has actually been found. Neither, in fact, has any evidence that any drone even existed been discovered.

There we go. Now that the reason for my awful pun has been explained, we can continue.

The initial story broke as eyewitnesses reported seeing a drone hovering around Gatwick airport. As a security measure, the airport took the decision to suspend flights. This led to a number of anger-inducing headlines in the national press aimed at drones, and the people who use them. A hunt was launched (sorry again for the pun) for the perpetrators, but they couldn’t be found. Instead, further reports of drone sightings came in.

Soon after, two people were arrested and plastered across the front pages of the more right-wing newspapers, where it was implied that they were ‘morons’. Luckily for the papers in questions, they used a question mark in their headline so as to avoid any libel suit. It transpired the couple had nothing to do with the alleged drone invasion of the airport. I say ‘alleged’ because we still hadn’t seen any evidence.

Eventually, it was admitted that some of the drone sightings could have been of the police drone being used to search for the first drone, which may never have existed in the first place.

The whole incident, or lack of incident, managed to shut down the airport and ground thousands of passengers just before Christmas.

So, what really happened?

As a qualified, licenced and insured commercial drone operator, I communicate with other drone operators around the UK. Our community noticed a distinct lack of photography or video from the supposed drone that was flying around Gatwick. Had someone been doing this to prove a point, for a misguided attempt at humour or for a more nefarious reason, we could have expected to see evidence of it online – either on YouTube or on social media. Nothing emerged though, and that was the first suggestion something was awry.

Secondly, the drone we use at Engage Web (The DJI Phantom 4) has a maximum flight time of around 18-22 minutes, depending on battery charge, wind speed and other factors. Should a drone have been flying around Gatwick, it wouldn’t have been difficult to see where it went to land, as it would need to do so every 20 minutes or so. This also assumes the PiC (Pilot in Command) had a never-ending supply of batteries.

Again, very unlikely.

Then there’s the maximum distance of the drones. Legally, you can only fly 500 metres from the controller, as you need to maintain a visible line of sight. The Phantom 4 will actually travel much further than that in perfect conditions with no interference, but again you’re limited to around 20 minutes anyway, so the pilot probably wasn’t much more than half a mile away and still nobody saw a drone fly off and land.

It’s also worth noting the DJI drones have technology built in that physically stops them from flying near no-fly zones, such as airports. This can be overridden, but it’s not easy (and not something any responsible pilot would do).

Perhaps the most worrying thing to come out of all of this was the suggestion in Parliament that the maximum distance you’re legally allowed to fly near an airport should be changed from 1km to 5km. That wouldn’t have prevented this event at all, even if there was a drone (which I seriously doubt). Any registered drone pilot wouldn’t fly within 1km even now. Anyone who doesn’t care for the rules would fly within 1km, so increasing the legal distance isn’t going to change anything.

No, what would make things better is simply to force every drone operator (whether using them for commercial or for recreation) to obtain a licence. It is, after all, an unmanned surveillance aircraft. It’s capable of travelling 400ft in the air and up to 500 metres away (higher and further if you hack you the settings). It’s capable of bringing down a helicopter, a plane and anything that travels through the air. Why on earth would you permit any idiot to use one with absolutely no training or understanding of the dangers?

Yet we do. It’s another example of technology advancing faster than the laws that govern it.

There’s no point making the laws stricter for people who already obey them. Make the laws that are already strict apply to everyone, not just commercial operators. What’s more, do it before something catastrophic happens, rather than when someone thinks they saw a drone and causes an airport to shut down.

Darren Jamieson

Technical Director at Engage Web
Darren is Technical Director at Engage Web, as well as being a co-founder of the company. He takes a hands-on approach to SEO and web design, helped by more than 15 years’ experience in these fields.

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