Government to give police stronger powers to tackle drones after Gatwick airport fiasco

On the spot fines and larger exclusion zones among new measures

Tim Wyatt
Monday 07 January 2019 23:22
Government needs to 'up its game' to tackle illegal drone use, says Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick

Police will be given new powers to curb the dangerous use of drones, the government has announced.

Under new legislation officers will be able to force a drone to land, then seize and search it.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the transport secretary Chris Grayling said the chaos at Gatwick Airport last month showed how the rules on drones needed updating.

However, the proposals themselves were drawn up in response to a consultation which closed months earlier, in September.

“The disruption caused by drones to flights at Gatwick Airport last month was deliberate, irresponsible and calculated, and illegal,” Mr Grayling said.

“When caught, those responsible should face the maximum possible custodial sentence.”

But the carnage at Gatwick – when repeated sightings of drones over three days forced the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights – also showed how new, tougher regulations were needed, he said.

“This incident was a stark example of why we must continue to ensure that drones are used safely and securely.

“The Gatwick incident has reinforced the fact it is crucial our regulatory and enforcement must keep pace with rapid technological change.”

Under the proposed package of measures, the police will be given the power to forcibly land a drone and then seize it, including any data stored inside, if a serious offence has been committed.

The Home Office will also begin work on new technologies which can detect and repel drones around sensitive sites such as airports and prisons.

The exclusion zone around airports, currently set at 1km, will be expanded to 5km, with even longer distances around the ends of runways.

Finally, from November anyone operating a drone will be forced to register and take an online test to prove their ability to safely fly the devices.

Anyone flying a drone who does not land it when ordered to by the police, or does not show their registration allowing them to operate the machines, could be fined up to £100 on the spot.

The aviation minister, Baroness Sugg, said: “Drones have the potential to bring significant benefits and opportunities, but with the speed of technological advancement comes risk, and safety and security must be our top priorities.

“That’s why we are giving the police powers to deal with those using drones irresponsibly.

“Along with additional safety measures these will help ensure the potential of this technology is harnessed in a responsible and safe way.”

Police say they have discovered a damaged drone near to the perimeter of Gatwick Airport

But the shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, castigated Mr Grayling’s handling of the incident and said the new measures announced were not nearly enough.

“Announcing the end of a consultation exercise doesn’t constitute action, nor does it go anyway towards restoring confidence in his capabilities,” he said in the Commons.

“[Mr Grayling’s] statement only serves to highlight the damage his dithering and delaying has caused.

“The government’s approach to drones has been chaotic and the industry clearly has no faith in his ability to deal with serious incidents.”

Sussex Police are still investigating the drone fiasco at Gatwick in December but have not yet identified who was behind the sustained attack.

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A man and woman who lived just five miles from the West Sussex airport were arrested but later released without charge and given an apology by the force’s chief constable.

Detectives are continuing to investigate “relevant sightings” from 115 witnesses – 93 of whom are described as “credible” – including airport staff, police officers and a pilot.

Gatwick and Heathrow airports have already decided to invest millions of pounds into anti-drone technology in an effort to stop a repeat of the chaos in the build-up to Christmas.

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