There was never a rogue drone at Gatwick Airport that caused planes to be grounded over the 2018 Christmas holidays, an outgoing exec at Chinese drone-maker DJI has claimed.
In an interview given just before he takes up his new veep of governmental affairs post with Boston Dynamics, Brendan Schulman said it was “now clear” that the event “did not actually involve a drone.”
I can now comfortably say this as someone no longer in the industry, because it won’t be attributed to an industry company who might sensationally be accused of being in denial
Between 19-21 December 2018, all flights at Gatwick Airport were halted after reports that a drone was flying around the airport’s southern perimeter. Initially a routine safety precaution, the shutdown was extended for days as members of the public kept calling in drone sightings to police – who had failed to mention they were flying their own drone around the airport to try and spot the errant craft.
Speaking to industry news site DroneDJ, Schulman continued: “The documents uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests, showing an utter lack of evidence of any drone being present, have made this quite clear.”
Those FoI requests were carried out by Ian Hudson of drone enthusiast site UAVHive. He summarised them on his Airprox Reality Check website, which is devoted to asserting that pilots reporting drone sightings are usually wrong.
Schulman added: “I can now comfortably say this as someone no longer in the industry, because it won’t be attributed to an industry company who might sensationally be accused of being in denial.”
DJI is one of the world’s dominant makers of consumer and prosumer drones. For a former senior US-facing veep to categorically say that drones weren’t involved in the hugely expensive shutdown of Britain’s second airport during peak travel season is a big snub to British investigators who insisted there was definitely something there.
Philip Rowse, CTO of drone company Cubepilot, told The Register: “At the first sign of trouble at Gatwick, I offered our assistance to the Sussex Police. As the lead of the hardware design team that has brought the majority (apart from DJI) of autopilots to the market worldwide either directly, or having had Chinese copies of our gear hit the market, I am very well aware of what unmanned systems can and cannot do.”
He added: “Yet… no pictures of a drone!”
Sussex Police gave up on its investigation a year after the incident, having wasted £790,000 of public money chasing after shadows. The only two arrests were of a local couple maliciously reported to police by a neighbour; they were paid £200k by Sussex Police in return for dropping a wrongful arrest lawsuit against the force. The total cost of the blundering police investigation alone is therefore estimated at just under £1m.
Various newspapers later reported that the shutdown had cost airlines around the world £50m in total. The Guardian went into some depth about the incident in an investigation published in 2020, concluding that evidence of a drone actually being present was minimal.
Despite the investigations coming to nothing, Britain went on to pass various laws permitting police to fine children £2,500 for playing with toy helicopters within three miles (4.82km) of any licensed airfield. ®