Something in the air tonight
When drone sightings closed the Gatwick runways, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the camera "Britain is facing a new threat". New? Really? This "new" threat to air safety is one that many have warned about for several years, ever since the quadcopter became a consumer item.
The saga of the aerial vandalism that closed Gatwick days before Christmas has been well documented, and the Transport Secretary found himself in the unenviable position of having to repeatedly make reassuring noises to camera about why items which can be bought off the shelf in a PC store and carried in one hand were bringing Britain's second airport to a standstill. He said it was "Disruptive activity that we've not seen before..." and used that favourite word of politicians and sports commentators when he described it as "unprecedented anywhere in the world".
That isn't entirely true. Several times in the last couple of years, Dubai Airport has had to halt operations for an hour or so due to unauthorised drone activity in its airspace, the most recent being 28th September when it had 21 planes backed up on the runway. Auckland airport in New Zealand has had five incidents this year when the runways had to be closed, including one incident when a drone came within five metres of hitting a Boeing 777, and another when a helicopter had to avoid a drone at 3,000 feet.
Perhaps the Minister intended to say it was unprecedented in British airspace, at a major airport flying civilian aircraft, except even that isn't true. The following video issued by the National Air Traffic Services, (NATS), shows the impact a single drone incursion had at an airport when it caused two periods of disruption within the hour, lasting just nine minutes and five minutes respectively. The airport in question was Gatwick, and the incident occurred on Sunday 2nd July 2017 and the video was published a month later.
Grayling also said "The reality is that this sort of technology is only just emerging... the technology is literally only just appearing". Again, that certainly isn't the case. The best known of the drone-makers, Chinese company DJI, was set up in 2006. Its heavyweight Flamewheel series was released in 2012, and the most successful consumer series, the Phantom, came onto the market in January 2013, almost six years ago. In December of 2013, Jeff Bezos announced plans for Amazon to use drones to make deliveries, and in December 2106, Amazon Prime Air delivered a parcel by drone to an address in Cambridge.
We shouldn't be too critical of Grayling individually who wasn't in office back then, but we should be critical of our politicians in general for burying their heads in the sand when it came to this technology, the dangers it poses, and the massive potential for invasion of our privacy. Our roads are strictly regulated, as are our radio waves, but anyone, of any age, and without any need for licenses or training, can purchase and fly a quadcopter of any design and without any need for it have registration, safety lights, identification marks, or the need to pass a periodic air-worthiness "MOT".
The regulations introduced in July are arguably much too late, and are more lax concerning airport no fly zones than those of other countries, and yet, as we have seen at Gatwick, when drone owners flout those regulations, there is little if anything that can be done about it to trace the perpetrators.
Has it been blown out of proportion?
The drone lobby argues that this is all a storm in a teacup, and a tiny little drone is no match for a jet liner. Modern aircraft have to be strong enough to withstand a bird strike, so the lightweight plastic of a hobbyist drone isn't going to be a problem. The University of Dayton Research Institute put that to the test, using an air canon used for bird strike simulations to fire a drone at the leading edge of a wing. This clip of film showed what happened:
The full report includes more video from different angles as well as video of firing a bird at the same speed at the same type of wing. The report concluded that birds and drones caused similar damage to the wing edge, although parts of the drone penetrated much further, damaging spars and components within the wing. In the video, you can see a section of spar forced through the undersurface at the right. This footage has been widely used on YouTube and in discussion forums, and the comments reveal just how many "experts" there are out there.
The armchair experts
Firstly, there are those who claim the science is flawed. A drone could not fly at that speed, over 200 mph, insists one critic, not understanding that neither can your average duck, and that this is a laboratory test to simulate the effect of an airliner flying at speed into an airborne object. Bird strikes are very real and have resulted in fatal crashes. Others post that "you cannot see claimed internal damage, this video proves nothing", and "they claim the drone did more damage than the bird strike, yet where is the footage?". The extended footage and multiple angles could be found on other videos and in the Dayton published findings, if they were interested enough to look.
Then there are those who doubt the authenticity of the test. One critic protests that the light changes during the video, and therefore it must be fake. Another repeatedly claims that this isn't a real aeroplane wing, that they've removed the titan, (I think he means titanium), and that titan would not crumple like this. Some add a caveat, that if this video is real, then aircraft makers should be criminally liable for building such flimsy aircraft.
The fake news theory
Some of the blogosphere who doubt the authenticity of both this video and the Gatwick incident claim Gatwick was fake news manufactured by the government, a false flag operation to divert attention from the Brexit vote. These doubters ask how come not a single photo of these supposed Gatwick drones exist?
Photos do exist, but don't let facts get in the way of the theory. It is incredibly difficulty to spot an object that small at that distance, let alone take a clear photo of one. No matter how good the latest iPhone camera is supposed to be, something the size of a football a mile away is only ever going to be a few fuzzy pixels in the image. In fact, even something the size of an airliner can be hard to spot against the clouds.
Another reason put forward as to why this was all faked is that drone batteries wouldn't last for twelve hours. Of course, no-one at Gatwick was claiming that a single drone hovered at the end of the runway for twelve hours at a time. If it had, it would have been much easier to deal with.
How do you deal with a drone?
Gatwick has raised the question of how do you deal with an errant drone. I think we all wondered why they didn't just get armed police to shoot it out of the sky, and it is right to ask that question, but as numerous reporters have explained, hitting something that small at that distance, which moves erratically, will challenge the best of snipers, and if they miss, the high-velocity bullets would reach as far Crawley.
Jam the signals was another suggestion, but jamming radio frequencies is not only illegal, even for the government, but it requires specialist equipment to avoid jamming everyone's wifi at the same time. There is also the consideration that when jamming it, you hope the drone will land safely, but there is no guarantee it will not just plummet from the sky with the potential for causing injury.
However, even when perfectly rational explanations have been given, the video bloggers persist with sticking to their own beliefs and claiming "it just doesn't add up, there's something they are not telling us".
The conspiracy theories
Strange as these arguments are, sadly they are not the strangest put forward by the self-proclaimed experts. The 911 Truthers were quick to applaud the Dayton video, saying this proves how flimsy an aircraft is, and therefore if it really had been commercial airliners flown into the Twin Towers, they would simply have splattered against the concrete, and that this video proves there is no way an aeroplane wing could slice through a metal column. Some even take the video as proof that aeroplane wings do not contain 260 gallons of fuel which is what the "authorities" would have you believe caused the fires at 911.
Just when you think you've heard it all, the UFO brigade put in an appearance. They claim that the reason the airport had to be shut for so long is because it was "a UFO which was impervious to SAM missiles", and it was all hushed up by the government. I think if the army had been firing surface to air missiles at an object hovering over West Sussex, no amount of government cover up could have kept that quiet. The armchair experts scoured video taken by a passenger at Gatwick and found what they believed to be a clear image of a flying saucer hovering in amongst the clouds. However, experienced photographers looking at the image quickly recognised that the photo had been taken through a window, and that the "UFO" was merely the reflection of a ceiling light fitting above and behind the camera.
Never the twain?
Lest you think from all this that drones and airports should never mix, there are good arguments for the airport itself to use them in a controlled manner. Ground staff could use drones to visually inspect upper surfaces of aeroplanes as an added pre-flight check. Runway staff could use drones to check runways for debris, (and remember it was a single piece of debris from a DC-10 on the runway at Charles de Gaulle Airport which caused Concorde to crash killing everyone on board). Drones are also being trialled as a way of herding flocks of birds away from the flight paths. Those life-saving applications could be lost if airports need to routinely implement drone jamming to keep the idiots out.
26th December 2018
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