Was the Gatwick Incident Really Caused by a Drone? The Blue Ribbon Task Force Report, and DJI’s Response

The effects of the Gatwick airport closure incidents this December have been significant for the drone industry.  The event was so expensive and disruptive that policy makers around the world – as well as drone manufacturers and airspace security or counter-drone solution providers – have moved to address the risk of similar incident.

Today, the Blue Ribbon Task Force on UAS Mitigation at Airports released its interim report, including “lessons learned” from the Gatwick incident, “as well as over twenty recommendations to industry and government on steps that should be taken to safeguard airports from UAS incursions,” says a Task Force release.   The world’s largest drone manufacturer, DJI, lost no time in responding to the release: pointing out firstly that the data on the Gatwick incident is still unclear; and secondly, that many of the recommendations have already been developed in the DJI ecosystem.

Who is the Blue Ribbon Task Force?

“The Task Force, with members from the United States and Canada, was commissioned in April of this year by Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) to study the benefits and threats of UAS in and around airports and to make recommendations to industry and government,” explains the release.  Led by former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Deborah Flint, Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles World Airports, the group is made up of national, state, and local aviation regulators and experts as well as a few other stakeholders, including representatives from United Airlines, the FBI, and the National Football League.

In focusing on the threat to airports, the Task Force gets to the heart of airspace security fears which may slow the progress of drone integration.

What Were The Task Force Recommendations?

“The Task Force … examined the gaps in safety and security and the need for government and airports to have clear policies to manage UAS incidents, both from a proactive and defensive posture,” states Huerta in the Task Force press release.

From the report:

The Task Force recommendations are focused on:

  • Remote ID rulemaking and technology, including incentivizing voluntary compliance andensuring data is made available to airport operations and public safety professionalson a real-time basis,

  • Communication and response planning, including UAS incursion response plan coordination,

  • Risk assessment, including defining roles and responsibilities and advance site-planning assessments,

  • Response management, including long-term airport closure planning and establishing clear lines of responsibility for reopening an airport after a UAS incursion,

  • Standardization, testing and design, including a call for more technology testing and eventual standards, better data collection, recording and sharing, and a recommendation on geofencing, and

  • Education and enforcement, including knowledge tests and a call for robust enforcement.

None of the topics listed are new to the drone industry, but as ACI-NA President and CEO, Kevin Burke points out: “As this report makes clear, airport security is no longer simply limited to the perimeter of the airport; measures must be taken to protect beyond the perimeter for departing and approaching aircraft. As we’ve seen, recent incursions around airports demonstrate that more needs to be done and at a faster pace than the regulatory process allows, which is why the work of the Task Force is so important.”

Was the Gatwick Incident Really a Drone?

The regulatory effects of the Gatwick incident on the drone industry are still emerging – but that the Gatwick closures generated bad publicity and slowed public acceptance of commercial drones, especially in the U.K., is indisputable.  Bad publicity based on unproven incidents – widely reported as drone issues well before investigation has been completed – is something that drone manufacturer DJI is actively fighting against, in what has become something of a company crusade for real and accurate incident data. 

“Six months after London’s Gatwick Airport shut down because of reported drone sightings, there is still no publicly available, independent proof that a rogue drone ever flew over the airport,” says a DJI blog post.  “But the magnitude of the response showed how unprepared many airports are to respond to a drone sighting and protect public safety while minimizing public disruption.”

The blog post points out that the commercial drone industry and DJI have already implemented many of the recommendations that Task Force makes:

Many of the Task Force recommendations echo features DJI has already implemented that greatly reduce the likelihood of unauthorized drone incursions at airports – including geofencing, our educational Knowledge Quiz, AeroScope remote identification, and our newly-announced commitment to install AirSense ADS-B receivers in all new drone models weighing more than 250 grams, which we will introduce next year.

The Task Force also calls for many of the same steps as are found in our Elevating Safety white paperon drone safety, including requiring mandatory Remote ID technology, knowledge testing for new drone operators, and rigorous enforcement of existing laws against unsafe drone operation near airports.

Still, DJI maintains that while the drone industry has born the brunt of the blame for the disruption, there is still no proof that a drone was the cause.  “It may never be known whether the Gatwick incident was a deliberate attempt to use drones to interfere with aviation, or a textbook case of mass hysteria,” says the blog post.   “That makes the Task Force’s work even more important, as it jump-starts an evidence-based and even-handed conversation about how airports should respond to reports of drone activity, and how to protect the public while minimizing disruption.”

About Author:

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.

July 15, 2019

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