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UK toughens airport defences after Gatwick drone incident

UK government authorities are to start testing and evaluating a range of counter-drone technologies in the country, intended to prevent airport disruption of the scale which recently affected London Gatwick.

The UK’s Department for Transport has outlined the measures in a consultation response document titled The Future of Drones in the UK, in which it also sets out enhanced law enforcement powers and plans to tighten airport restrictions to protect low-flying aircraft.

These new restrictions will include a 5km long and 1km wide exclusion zone from runway ends, drone flying within which would require air traffic control permission. There is already a limitation in place, as of 30 July last year, forbidding drone flights above 400ft within 1km of an airport.

“[While] increasing the restriction zone would not prevent a deliberate incident, it is important that proportionate measures are in place to help protect all arriving and departing aircraft using our aerodromes and avoid potential conflict with legitimate drone activity,” says UK aviation minister Liz Sugg in the response.

The Home Office will be able to “expedite detailed policy work” to develop means to allow expanded use of counter-drone technology, adds Sugg, which would detect drones flying around sensitive sites – airports among them – and help prevent a repeat of the Gatwick incident, during which the airport was closed for over 24h.

Disruption at Gatwick, says the document, was a “stark example” of why continued action is required to ensure drones are used safely and securely in the UK.

From 30 November this year drone operators will be required to register and drone pilots will need to complete a competency test online.

“We are also working with manufactures to introduce new technologies which will help in making sure drones are used in accordance with the law,” says the document. These technologies include geo-fencing and electronic conspicuity.

UK cockpit union BALPA, which had criticised the current airport flight restrictions as being “too lax”, has welcomed the planned extension to the exclusion zone.

“The recent events at Gatwick, combined with the responses to the recent public consultation, have convinced the government of the need to revisit the laws and make changes,” it says.

BALPA insists it is “not anti-drone” but general secretary Brian Strutton says that the safety of aircraft and their occupants must be prioritised. It says it co-sponsored drone impact tests with the Department for Transport and would be keen to assist with testing new technologies to ensure drones are flown safely.

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