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Drones are the New UFOs - The Lasting Impact of Gatwick and Newark

A New Year, another continent, same culprit - flights were either rerouted or grounded after two pilots in the cockpit of flights on Southwest Airlines and United reported seeing a drone hovering at roughly 3,500 feet above Terterboro, New Jersey earlier this week. Roughly nine miles from Newark airport, the reported drone sighting from the other day caused delays up to 30 minutes. Video footage or actual proof of said drone has yet to surface. Moreso, DJI’s head of Law, Brendan Schulman, finds it highly unlikely that any UAV could withstand such a high altitude at the peak of winter.

If this tale sounds all too familiar, it’s because this is the third time a “drone sighting” has grounded or redirected flights and inconvenienced travelers in the past two months. The first incident occurred on December 19th at Gatwick airport, a major international hub in Southeast England. Authorities closed the runways, grounding over 1,000 flights, which delayed 140,000 passengers for over two days while a manhunt ensued. Two suspects were arrested and later released when the police could not prove their involvement. A few weeks later, all flights at Heathrow airport were grounded for an hour when a drone was spotted 300 feet AGL near a runway.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) receives hundreds of reports regarding unauthorized flights around airports and helicopters, each month. However, most are not verifiable. The fact is, a majority of drone pilots are safe and responsible. Drones have not caused one civilian death yet, to date. Nevertheless, drones have become the new UFO sightings. When people can’t clearly identify a disruptive object, they immediately assume it must be a drone.

The fallout for drone pilots?

Not everyone who flies a drone is a pilot. Any technology can fall into the wrong hands and people with malicious intent will always find a way. Women Who Drone ambassador, Carys Kaiser, whose work regularly appears in major publications including The Guardian and BBC called for airports to adopt much-needed security measures.

Sure enough, anti-drone defense systems have surged in popularity in the wake of Gatwick and Heathrow, with the former enlisting Drone Dome to help secure their airspace.

In the US, amidst a government shutdown, progress is being made to allow flight over people, at night. This is a huge development when one considers how difficult getting a waiver for this level of operation was in the past. Additional testing and certification is something being seriously considered by the FAA.

Drones are good. Despite the overwhelmingly negative media coverage they receive, they continue to prove their use in a multitude of industries including construction, agriculture, and mining. Teams that adopt drone technology can count on saving time, money, and effort. Equipped with thermal cameras, they're able to locate missing people and animals. Simply put, they're not going anywhere. In the wake of these incidents, airports need to adapt for the occasional rogue user.


Kara Murphy, known as @karaemurphy online, is a certified remote pilot, freelance writer, marketing consultant, and artist living in Michigan. You can purchase her drone photos at Aerial Print Shop.

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