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Rogue drones prompt major airports to spend millions on protection

Reported sightings of at least two rogue drones flying close to the U.K.’s second busiest airport in December 2018 caused an unprecedented level of disruption at one of the most hectic times of the year for air traffic control.

Safety concerns at Gatwick airport in southern England on December 20 meant that no planes were allowed to take off, with all inbound flights diverted to airports in cities across the U.K. and northern Europe.

Gatwick was out of action for 36 hours in all, with the drones repeatedly reappearing throughout the closure each time officials were about to deem the skies safe. Around 1,000 flights were canceled during the incident, with some 140,000 passengers having their holiday travel plans ruined.

The incident was a wake-up call for the U.K. authorities regarding the kind of turmoil a tiny remotely controlled flying machine can cause if it flies to close to an airport. And it focused the minds of safety officials, too, who fear a drone strike could, in the worst case, down an airliner. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Gatwick halted operations while it searched for the rogue flying machines.

Now both Gatwick and London’s Heathrow airport are reportedly investing millions of dollars in “military-grade anti-drone apparatus” to prevent rogue machines from flying close to airport facilities, the Guardian reported recently.

Both airport have so far declined to offer details about the kind of technology they’re employing, but it’s believed to be similar to the Drone Dome system created by Israeli firm Rafael and which is believed to have been used briefly at Gatwick in the days following December’s incident.

The Drone Dome can track airborne devices within a six-mile radius and jam communications between the drone and its operator. Rafael itself describes the Drone Dome as an “end-to-end system designed to provide effective airspace defense against hostile drones used by terrorists to perform aerial attacks, collect intelligence, and perform other intimidating activities.”

While the vast majority of drone owners fly their machines responsibly and enjoy all the benefits they were designed for, incursions over locations like airports, prisons, and critical infrastructure are on the rise. As a result, a growing number of companies are competing for contracts with technology designed to knock rogue drones out of the sky if they enter restricted zones. Digital Trends recently took a look at a selection of systems currently available.

As for the Gatwick incident, two people were arrested by police but later released without charge. No other arrests have been made, with one police officer even suggesting there was a “possibility” the multiple drone sightings were somehow mistaken. However, officials at Gatwick insist the drones were genuine and that its response was measured and appropriate.

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Trevor Mogg
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