You can’t fly a drone near an airport… or can you?

The drone incursion at Gatwick Airport last December was clearly a reckless and deliberate act of sabotage, the consequences of which brought misery to the travelling public and burdened the airport and airlines alike with significant expense and logistic upheaval.  The cost to the UK has been put in excess of £50m.

While the story moves off into distant memory, 6 months on from the incident, the aftermath has also left its mark on the fledgling commercial drone services industry, with many operators, particularly those that work near airports and aerodromes, reporting a significant downturn in enquiries. In addition to loss of sales, drone pilots have reported an upturn in verbal abuse and general disruption when going about their lawful business.

DSR shot drone footage 250m from the end of Gatwick Airport runway

There are two other legacy issues or misconceptions since Gatwick which are these,

  • Firstly, that the legislation and regulatory changes that came in after Gatwick were ‘because’ of Gatwick and that they were a knee-jerk response from Government. This is not true, as the changes were already due to be implemented as part of the EASA harmonisation programme of changes and CAA policy changes that were in the pipeline. So Airport boundaries, no flight zones and drone registration were all about to come in regardless of current events.
  • Secondly, that Drone Operators can not fly near Airports and Aerodromes. This is also not true. Prior to Gatwick Drone Operators and Amateur Flyers, would have had to get the necessary permissions and clearances from Airport Operators, Air Traffic Control Towers and NATs as well as obtaining landowner’s permission and notifying interested third parties such as Police, Council, Coastguard for example. This hasn’t changed, its just that the boundaries have increased.

This latter point is the one that is of the greatest concern to Drone Safe Register, as our professional members have a legitimate commercial requirement to conduct drone flight business within these restricted zones.

DSR Flies drone adjacent to Gatwick Airport

In fact, flights can take place, even within the busiest airport, providing the correct permission is sought and obtained from the appropriate air traffic control unit or flight information services. DSR wanted to prove this point, so we approached Gatwick’s drone unit to request permission to obtain the images you see on this page.

So how easy was this?

Well, it’s not as straightforward as a “normal” commercial operation.  We already had an agreement in place for take-off and landing but because we were at such a critical part of an aircraft’s departure or approach path, there were real concerns about the potential impact of pilots taking avoiding action.

A detailed safety case and method statement were produced by DSR’s Director of Safety, Graham Degg.  This was carefully assessed by those in the safety and communications chain and was clearly up to scratch as it was passed first time.  The Gatwick team raised the necessary NOTAM.  This was not only necessary to warn the pilots but also to obtain our drone ‘unlock codes’, a process that was also relatively pain-free. There is a lot of information provided in an Operating Safety Case, Risk Assessment and Method Statement documentation (which we won’t get into for this article).  It runs into many pages and mitigates risk in significant detail, but it is not out of reach for any experienced commercial drone pilot or operator.

It is important to remember that although the airport safety authorities have produced a NOTAM, only ATC can give permission to fly.  So, a call was made to clear the flights and I’d like to say “we were off”.  Unfortunately, the weather had different ideas and we ended up sheltering under the wing of a historic Buccaneer aircraft waiting for the showers to relent – possibly the coolest umbrella ever!  Eventually, after a few false-starts, although the sun didn’t really show itself, at least the rain stopped, and we were able to fly and capture some amazing footage.

The point is that this could equally have been a roof inspection or bird survey either inside or outside the airport. The process would have been essentially the same, though the contents of the safety case may have altered.

These flights were closer to the runway than any other drone operation since the problems last Christmas and DSR would like to thank the team at Gatwick for their professional and positive approach. They are a great team who really want to encourage safe and professional drone practices. We can also thoroughly recommend dropping into the Gatwick Aviation Museum next time you’re waiting for a flight. They have an amazing collection of vintage aircraft, many of which are in running condition!

DSR will always look to assist our professional members in the process and procedure to obtain these kind of permissions – Mark Boyt CEO of Drone Safe Register

DSR NOTAM placed for drone flights at Gatwick
Drone flying at Gatwick Airport
  • How long did the process of obtaining permissions take?

    It took 11 business days to get the permissions in ‘principle’. ATC give their permission on the day after considering all issues at the flight request time. Key point is to allow sufficient time and plan ahead.

  • Which bodies/organisations were involved when obtaining permissions?

    Along with landowners, in this case Gatwick Air Museum, we approached and liaised with Gatwick UAS Team who on this occasion dealt with the Airport Police and Local Police units. That would normally be something that the drone operator would do. On this occasion NATS were not needed as Gatwick ATC will handle permissions inside their airspace.

  • What restrictions were imposed over normal operations?

    On this occasion we were limited to 125ft. We could have pushed for a higher altitude, but it wasn’t necessary for the exercise we wanted to undertake. The airport also required specific information on the drones to be used so they can be discounted as “bogeys” by the counter-drone systems.  We put our own time limits in place, but got permission to be held for a week as long as it was at the same time of day.

  • How did DSR avoid a pilot looking out the window and seeing the drone and then taking some kind of action – divert/abort etc ?

    This was actually one of the main concerns of the UAS team.  But the NOTAM was put in place and we suspect (but don’t know) that pilots will have been specifically warned on take-off.  If the aircraft were landing from the other direction, we feel sure they will have been warned as any avoiding action would potentially be far more dangerous than any risk from the drone.

  • Apart from the drone unlock process, were there any hardware considerations in that airspace – did the drone unlock work ok?

    No changes to hardware considered necessary. For instance a parachute would be the last thing anybody would want as in the event of a failure it would keep the drone in the air for longer and potentially allow to drift. Flight controls were kept simple with appropriate height and distance limits applied and built in. Unlocks worked as expected but did require internet connection. On this occasion we used DJI drone UAVs.

  • How easy or how hard was the whole process?

    This was like any other flight in an open field, but always with the awareness of what was behind the trees – Gatwick Airport runway.  There is a huge responsibility placed on the remote pilot for this sort of flight, a single mistake can mean that there is potential for huge loss of life.  This is why we worked hard up front to ensure the risks were kept to an absolute minimum.  You have to be confident in your aircraft and flying experience, your ability to spot your UAV if it is getting into trouble and that you will react correctly and appropriately.  The margins for error are slimmer than normal and this is all taken into account when creating the safety case.

  • Can any commercial operator achieve this or does it require a greater degree of experience?

    Theoretically any operator could carry out work here.  It isn’t technically difficult with nice open spaces. But as the CAA stress, aerodromes bear the responsibility for keeping their airspace safe.  This means they may be interested in the experience of the operator when considering permissions.  We were able to provide a compelling safety case combining enhanced controls and experienced operators.  We were open from the beginning about our intentions (for instance flying two aircraft at once) and planned accordingly.

  • If it wasn’t DSR or a DSR Professional Pilot, would permission have been denied or harder to achieve?

    All aerodromes should be treating operators equally and judging each request on their own specific safety criteria.  We can’t say that being a part of DSR will necessarily open a door for pilots, but it would be fair to suggest that our professional reputation could have played its part. Having had the experience there, we may be able to provide consultancy for any DSR members looking to achieve something similar.  We would respectfully request that members do not bombard the museum with take-off and landing requests.

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About the Author: DSR Journalist

Henry Greenshields

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