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Airports to test counter-drone equipment following Gatwick incident

The government has unveiled plans to start testing new counter-drone equipment at British airports after drone sightings caused chaos at Gatwick last month.

The move forms part of a package of measures aimed at preventing such an incident from happening again. Under new proposals published last night, the government could grant police officers the power to land, seize and search drones, and issue on the spot fines to operators who fail to comply with their requests. The drone-free zone around airports will also be extended from one to five kilometres.

The British Airline Pilots’ Assocation welcomed the move, while acknowledging that the incident at Gatwick breached existing legislation. Brian Stutton, BALPA’s general secretary, said: “We were encouraged last year when the government announced that it was introducing new laws, including the restriction zone and mandatory registration, but we were disappointed they didn’t go far enough. […] The government’s announcement today is a win for flight safety.”

Stutton also welcomed the Home Office’s decision to trial new counter-drone equipment. “[This is] key to ensuring the kind of threat we saw at Gatwick can be safely tackled. BALPA co-sponsored drone impact testing with the [Department for Transport] and we would be happy to be involved with testing new technology to ensure drones are flown safely and responsibly.”

The announcement revealed that the technology would be designed to detect and repel drones in airports and prisons. But it was light on detail about how the technology would work or where in the UK it would first be tested. However, the Telegraph reported last month that Gatwick and Heathrow had both spent millions of pounds on military-grade anti-drone equipment in light of the incident.

Speaking in parliament last night, the transport minister Chris Grayling refused to reveal details of how Gatwick stopped the drones, saying only that “the issue was solved only by the smart and innovative use of new technology”. He added: “The Gatwick incident has reinforced the fact that it is crucial that our regulatory and enforcement regime keeps pace with rapid technological change.”

But the shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said Grayling had not moved fast enough when it came to drone legislation. “It is good to learn that the government might finally listen to the advice of industry on extending drone exclusion zones around airports to some 5 km, but it is unfortunate that this advice was not considered sooner.”

“It is also unfortunate that the drone incursion at Gatwick airport in July 2017 did not serve as a warning to the secretary of state,” he added. “He clearly learned no lessons from that incident, and he was totally negligent in failing to bring forward measures to better protect national infrastructure. The government’s approach to drones has been chaotic, and the industry clearly has no faith in his ability to deal with serious incidents.”