Air traffic controller involved with Gatwick drone incident speaks out

Hundreds of thousands of passengers’ flights were disrupted during the busy holiday travel season two years ago thanks to what’s now known as the Gatwick drone incident.

About 1,000 flights were cancelled between Dec. 19 and Dec. 21, 2018 at London’s Gatwick Airport, which is the UK’s second busiest airport, after multiple drones were spotted nearby,

With runways closed for 33 hours, financial losses were massive, and tons of holiday travel plans were thrown into disarray. And now, one of the former Gatwick air traffic controllers speaks out about what could have happened during the drone disruption, two years ago.

For starters, he said equipment that can detect drones should be implemented in airports.

“Getting equipment in that helps to chase down or jam down drones, that might be a first step,” said Paul Diestelkamp, an Air Traffic Controller who was involved in the Gatwick drone incident. “I can say that from the experience we went through.

Diestelkamp currently serves as Head of Business Development & Solutions, Air Navigation Solutions to integrate drone operations on airports and concepts for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations of drones.

For what it’s worth Diestelkamp was discussing the Gatwick drone incident as part of a virtual discussion hosted by anti-drone technology company Dedrone. Dedrone makes equipment that can do largely what Diestelkamp was talking about. The San Francisco startup builds technology that can alert its customers (such as airports) when a drone enters protected airspace, enabling the customer to take action and easier track the pilot.

Gatwick drone incident flight disruption delay

Still, Diestelkamp says that detection is only the first step. High-security areas such as airports, or even stadiums, need to have more extensive procedures in place.

“In the end, the equipment you need isn’t just detection,” he said. “It needs to properly integrate with air traffic control, with the pilots. Do the pilots know what’s going on? Working through that chain is really critical.”

And even critical players like pilots and ATC being aware of a threat may not be enough.

“Equipment is useful for telling you there’s something in the environment that should be there, but then what do you do?” he said. “Do you shut the place down? Do you contradict your objective in the first place?”

He said places like airports need to spend time thinking about their plan if they do detect a drone, whether it’s shutting down the airport, as Gatwick did, or finding a way to achieve continuous operation.

And one more thing: while Diestelkamp did bring up jamming as a possibility, he said he doesn’t think it’s usually a good idea.

“Jamming, the step of then intervening with something that doesn’t do what it’s meant to, is almost the last step,” he said. “At the moment, the default for many is, ‘I don’t understand the risk, and so anything I see is a potential risk, so therefore how can I neutralize it?’ In an airport environment, jamming comes with risks, so it needs to be done very, very carefully.”

The entire discussion, which was held as part of a webinar with airline pilot Sam Pile and Dedrone Airspace Security Expert Amit Samani, is about 30 minutes long and can be viewed here.

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