Australia not prepared for Gatwick-style drone chaos, warns expert


Drones brought Gatwick airport to a standstill this week.

After drone activity caused disruption at London's Gatwick airport this week, one expert is concerned Australia is underprepared for a similar event.

Drone expert Professor Ron Bartsch told SBS News on Saturday, "what happened at Gatwick is something that could happen tomorrow at Sydney's airport or any airport throughout the world".

Drones were first sighted hovering around the UK's second-busiest air hub on Wednesday, grinding the runway to a standstill affecting more than 120,000 people.

Professor Ron Bartsch to SBS News.
Professor Ron Bartsch to SBS News.
SBS News

"The difficulty we have is that legislation can't keep up with the rate of development of drone technology," Professor Bartsch said.

He said there is also a long way to go before anti-drone technology is highly effective. 

"There are 2,000 different manufacturers of drones throughout the world, and until there are international standards, you're not going to be able to control that technology."

He also warned there could be "copycat instances of this".

"We may see a bit of a surge in this sort of thing happening as we did with high power lasers."

In the fallout of the incident, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority tweeted Gatwick was "an important reminder of the drone rules in Australia".

"Drone flyers must not operate a drone within 5.5km of a major airport or more than 120 metres above ground level without permission," it said.

Australians who break the rules could face heavy penalties.

Police used high-tech anti-drone guns to disable airborne objects that strayed within "Temporary Restricted Areas" at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April. 

The bulky, hand-held guns were able to "detect and disrupt unauthorised drone activity" by jamming signals between the devices and their operators, according to police.

Two arrests

Earlier Saturday, two people were arrested in connection with the "criminal use of drones" at Gatwick.

Passengers sleeping at Gatwick airport.
Passengers sleeping at Gatwick airport.

Flights resumed on Friday after a new drone sighting briefly forced planes to be grounded as a "precautionary measure", a Gatwick spokesman said.

Sussex Police said officers had been using "a range of tactics" to hunt for the mystery drone operators and "build resilience to detect and mitigate further incursions" from the device.

The army was called in on Thursday to offer support, with the defence ministry deploying what was described only as specialist equipment.

The dangers posed by drones include the possibility of a device smashing into a passenger plane or being sucked up into an engine where its highly flammable lithium battery could cause a catastrophe.

In Britain, the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year.

Gatwick, around 50 kilometres south of the British capital, is the eighth-busiest airport in Europe and sits behind Mumbai as the world's busiest single-runway air hub.

Under a new British law, drones cannot be flown near aircraft or within a kilometre of an airport, or at an altitude of over 122 metres.

Violators face up to five years in prison for endangering an aircraft.

- Additional reporting: AFP

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