Enlarge / LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 20: A Police helicopter flies over Gatwick Airport as they search for the Drone operator causing closure of the airport on December 20, 2018.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

In what appears to be the first intentional use of drones to disrupt civil aviation, continued sightings of two remotely piloted aircraft flying over and around the airfield at London's Gatwick Airport starting the evening of December 19 have forced the airport to remain closed to flights for over a day. In a letter posted to Gatwick's website, Gatwick Airport's CEO called the continued drone activity "a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas." He also said the airport is cooperating with law enforcement to end the "criminal activity."

As of 7:00pm London time on Thursday, Gatwick's runway was still unavailable for takeoffs and landings "because of continued drone sightings," the airport announced, and some airlines have cancelled all flights until further notice. "We apologize to all of our passengers who are impacted today, but the safety of our passengers and all staff is our priority," an airport spokesperson said.

Drone sightings have been a safety concern around London's airports for some time. In 2016, a British Airways flight landing at London's Heathrow Airport apparently struck a drone while on approach for landing. Earlier that year, the United Kingdom's Airprox air safety board issued an incident report on a near-miss in which a quadcopter drone passed within 20 feet of a landing Airbus A319 at Heathrow. And just a month ago, a drone came within 32 feet of a commuter aircraft landing at Edinburgh Airport. In the US, there have been hundreds of such incidents reported in recent years.

But none of these incidents has appeared to be as deliberate or as coordinated as the continuous drone activity at Gatwick, now spanning over 24 hours. The airport will remain affected tomorrow.

While there has been an outcry over the safety impact of drones as a result, British Prime Minister Theresa May emphasized that the UK already has passed legislation restricting drone usage and that no further laws were needed. "I feel for all those passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted by this drone activity and the action that has had to be taken in response to it," May said at a press conference. "As it has been made clear, the activity we have seen is illegal, and those who are caught endangering aircraft can face up to five years in prison. And we're consulting on further aspects of this including further police powers. We will continue to work with the Gatwick authorities in order to bring this to a close such that people will be able to get on to the travel that they were expecting over the Christmas."

Incidents such as this could increase interest in anti-drone technology, including "drone guns," jammers, and other drone countermeasures. But many current solutions for dealing with drones could interfere with regular air traffic, including GPS jamming systems like those developed for the military.

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