In Depth

Gatwick drone: case closes with no arrests

Police spent nine months and £800,000 investigating incursions that caused chaos at airport

Police have closed their investigation into last year’s drone incident at Gatwick Airport, admitting they have “no realistic lines of inquiry”.

More than 1,000 flights were cancelled or delayed at the London airport between between 19 and 21 December 2018, following reports of drone sightings close to the runway. The chaos during the busy pre-Christmas period affected 140,000 passengers, with Gatwick closed for 30 hours.

Investigations by Sussex Police led to the arrests of two suspects out of a total of 96 people of interest identified by officers, who “carried out 1,200 house-to-house inquiries and took 222 witness statements”, The Guardian reports.

However, both suspects were released without charge.

But police appear convinced that the incident was an inside job perpetrated by someone with a detailed knowledge of the airport.

Summarising the findings of the investigation, a spokesperson for the force this week said: “Through corroborated witness statements, it is established that at least two drones were in operation during this period, and the offender, or multiple offenders, had detailed knowledge of the airport.

“Witness statements show activity happened in ‘groupings’ across the three days on 12 separate occasions, varying in length from between seven and 45 minutes. On six of these occasions, witnesses clearly saw two drones operating simultaneously.”

The theory that the attack was carried out by an insider was first reported back in February, when Whitehall sources told The Times that police believe either a current or former employee might have orchestrated the chaos.

The drone reportedly “hid” behind buildings and structures where it could not be reached by the military-grade counterdrone equipment brought in to tackle it.

This indicates that the pilot “knew the blind spots for it, where it could not be ‘hit’”, the source said. “It was clearly someone with really good knowledge of Gatwick, someone who had worked there. Hypothetically, it could have been a disgruntled employee.”

A second Whitehall source said: “The thinking is that it is someone who had good knowledge of the airport layout. The ‘disgruntled employee’ theory is running high.”

Former army officer Richard Gill, who now owns a company selling drone defence technology, told the BBC the malicious operation was “really well planned”.

“If you've got a deliberate adversary who really knows about the technology and can apply it to cause harm then it's very difficult to combat that,” he said.

Identifying such an adversary has proved even more difficult.

Announcing the closure of the police inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable Dave Miller said: “With support from national experts, we have carried out an exhaustive criminal investigation but, without new information coming to light, there are no further realistic lines of enquiry at this time.”

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who represents Brighton Kemptown, told The Telegraph: “I think what we can say is that the drone fiasco is absolutely a piece of history that has cost the force a great deal of money. We must make sure we have better processes in place to stop the drones at the time, rather than an investigation that has gone nowhere.

“It is an awful lot of money. That would have paid for a great number of police officers.”

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