back to article Ex-DJI veep: There was no drone at Gatwick during 2018's hysterical shutdown

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" …

  1. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge

    Logically, if it wasn't a drone, it must have been aliens...

    1. LogicGate

      Incorrect, it was a UFO, and it will remain assuch until identified (as a duck that repeats "you bloody fool" again and again).

      1. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge

        You'll notice that the article doesn't deny that it was aliens...

        1. jake Silver badge

          I've also noticed that ...

          ... you have never denied being an alien.

      2. JimboSmith Silver badge

        Once heard an ex USAF pilot who said he now debunks alien sightings after leaving the military. This was back in the days of Netscape Navigator and the early internet. Somebody emailed him to say they had footage of an alien spacecraft moving at speed with coloured lights, then hovering and emitting a beam. He travelled to meet this woman who seemed perfectly normal and not a usual UFO believer. Said he watched her video of the 'alien craft' and checked the date she'd recorded it. Then explained in detail what she'd captured on tape. Sadly her Alien was just a far larger than normal plane going into a local airport making an emergency landing. He said the plane did not start hovering and the beam of light was just from a helicopter probably a police one. Woman was unhappy with this.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          There's the guy who claims BonneyBridge is Scotland's UFO hot spot... even though it has been pointed out to him that the light patterns are remarkably aircraft-like and that it's half way between Glasgow and Edinburgh airports

    2. katrinab Silver badge

      Or a bird, or a carrier bag being blown around in the wind.

      1. Kane Silver badge

        "Or a bird, or a carrier bag being blown around in the wind."

        Or, it was aliens

      2. TheProf Silver badge

        Well they've solved the carrier bag problem by charging 15 pence for them.

  2. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    Follow the money

    If the end 'benefit' was to those elements who like to ensure there's a law to cover every eventuality, that's where the finger of suspicion for starting the panic should point.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: Follow the money

      There are laws that cover every eventuality already, "Breach of the peace" would work here it covers almost any situation where harm could be inflicted.

      There has been a long list of offences added recently, mostly to show something is 'being done' but tbh the ability to gain a fair conviction is more important than the specific name of the offence.

      1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

        Re: Follow the money

        > There are laws that cover every eventuality already

        E.g., "No visible means of support"

        Criminalises the use of all drones, already.

        Also helicopter pilots. So hide your helicopter if you see another such debacle in the offing. No sense asking for trouble.

    2. SundogUK Silver badge

      Re: Follow the money

      You say 'Follow the money' and then don't follow the money. If it was a deliberate scam, it's far more likely to have been a disgruntled ex-employee, or a competitor airport.

    3. stewwy

      Re: Follow the money

      Mob hysterics have been a prime driver for a lot of UK law.

    4. Wayland Bronze badge

      Re: Follow the money

      Gatwick was up for sale that week. Also parliament was pushing a drone bill through.

  3. werdsmith Silver badge

    I felt that there was a drone in the first sighting, probably a misguided Youtubist who got scared and went to ground. There after all sightings were phantom.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What kind of drone-sensitive organ do you posess to have "felt" its presence?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Let's just call it a gut feeling, and I always trust my gut!

        Right now it's telling me ...

        I'm hungry

      2. martinusher Silver badge

        >What kind of drone-sensitive organ do you posess to have "felt" its presence?

        Common sense and the knowledge that people have done things with quadcopters that they really shouldn't. Like get some really neat footage of an airliner landing at Las Vegas. From above.

        I tend to be skeptical of drone sightings from airliners based on personal experience with birds and light aircraft. A bird like a red-tailed hawk is about the size of a quadcopter and is the sort you might encounter while puttering along at a decent altitude. They're not easy to spot and even at the relatively slow pace of a GA plane -- about half the landing speed of an airliner -- the relative speed is high enough to make it difficult to identify anything. (Try bird spotting from a car on the motorway.)

        That said, we've had the clown with the jet pack back recently, floating a few thousand feet up near the flight path into Los Angeles. I personally don't think its a jet pack but more likely a balloon made from a boiler suit or similar. Until we find the people responsible we won't know for sure.

        1. jake Silver badge

          The "clown in a jetpack" is most likely a radio controlled aircraft of some kind dolled up to look like Superman/Ironman/DudeWithAJetpack/whatever.

          1. martinusher Silver badge

            That one is too small to qualify. I fly R/C sailplanes which not only can be quite large but they can rapidly gain height in a strong thermal. A friend got his 3.5mter 'grabbed' and pulled right up to where it was just a tiny speck. He was lucky to get it down. It was equipped with an altimeter which said he'd only got up to about 1300' AGL.

            1. jake Silver badge

              It wasn't seen from the ground, it was seen from the cockpit.

              Allegedly. Again, absolutely no pictures, not even blurry ones ... with an airplane on final approach to LAX, and all the grubby little noses of the passengers pressed up against the windows, camera at the ready, as on every single landing I've ever been on since the days of the Kodak Instamatic.

        2. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

          @martinusher - "(Try bird spotting from a car on the motorway.)"

          That's easy, you hear a loud "SPLAT" as they hit the windscreen.

          (The coat with the emergency windscreen replacement phone number in the pocket, please)

          1. jake Silver badge

            There is no SPLAT ... it's more of a THUD.

            Turns out that the bits that make for good soup do an excellent job of holding the splatable bits together on impact.

            1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

              Oh yeah. I've hit a bird. Lots of feathers.

        3. jake Silver badge

          "(Try bird spotting from a car on the motorway.)"

          Coming back from Petaluma this afternoon I spotted three red-tailed hawks (two adults, and a youngster (judging by tail feather length)), one peregrine falcon, a handful of red-winged blackbirds, several dozen finches of various varieties, half a dozen turkey vultures, a flock of about a dozen wild turkeys (and another group of about a dozen yearling male turkeys) and a whole lot of gulls.

          Most at about 65MPH. And I wasn't even trying, I just happened to notice those.

          1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

            I've known several keen birders like jake. It's only when they have binoculars ready and waiting on the dash for a closer look that I worry about being their passenger.

            Friends who know me will know exactly who I'm referring to.

            1. jake Silver badge


              I'm not a keen birder, I'm just very observant when it comes to the world around me. It's probably a side-affect of growing up hunting crossed with being an avid motorcyclist all my life.

              No need for glass ... I don't need to see the details of every feather to tell the difference between a flock of sparrows and a flock of finches at 100 yards.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Disclaimer.

                Metres please. Oh wait. Lord Frost says it's ok. As you were.

          2. Martin Silver badge

            I'm astounded that hawks, falcons, blackbirds, turkeys or gulls could travel at 65MPH...

            1. tiggity Silver badge

              TBF peregrines can do multiples of that (though primarily in a downward stoop) and well over that in level flight (as can some of their common prey such as pigeons as an "arms race" in speed & manoeuvrability means slow pigeons typically have short lives)

              Given they are quite chunky (compared to blackbirds, tits etc.), ducks, pigeons etc. have triggered some speed cameras (though at more casual flight speeds, not at 65 MPH AFAIK)

              1. jake Silver badge

                Some species of duck can hit 75+ MPH briefly (some say canvasbacks can hit 90+).

                I forgot about the ducks, geese and swans in this pond ... it's got an algae bloom at the moment, and the poultry are a trifle irritated, but you can still see 'em dotted around where the breeze clears the creeping crud off the top of the water. And of course many of the homes dotted along the road between here and there have chickens running around in the yard.

            2. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
              1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

                Well, you come on a techie site and there's a flock of twitchers.

      3. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

        Probably similar to those senses usually followed by Sussex police, he "used the farce".

      4. Wayland Bronze badge

        There was a disturbance in the force as if tiny blades were slicing their air into millions of pieces.

    2. Robert 22

      Given the resources committed to the response, it is difficult to believe that any culprit would have continued operations without getting caught. Consumer drones have limited range/endurance and the control signals are not that hard to detect - in open terrain, they would be quite conspicuous.

      1. RobLang

        Consumer drones (and hobby ones too) have control signals are 2.4GHz, same as wifi. Almost impossible to spot in a metropolitan area.

        1. NonSSL-Login

          Almost impossible to spot except....for their clearly visible and known MAC addresses which make them stand out like a sore thumb if you are looking for them in signals of any frequency.

          Commercial drone scanners do exactly that on the usual frequencies and the police or the army used something like that at the time and found sod all. That's when they started going on about it being a complicated attack as they assumed the 'drone' either had a pre-programmed path so no radio signal or it had been modified by an 'expert' to run on a different frequency which 2.4ghz scanners could not see

      2. Wayland Bronze badge

        To maintain regular drone sightings the drone would have to keep going back to get a recharge. If it existed then it would have been followed.

  4. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Just another UFO

    > a big snub to British investigators who insisted there was definitely something there.

    It was unidentified.

    It was flying (maybe)

    It was an object (possibly)

    All that adds up to is more unexplained sightings. Some of which might have been real. None of which prove anything.

  5. Spanners Silver badge

    That must be...

    the most unsurprising technical(ish) news of the year. I was sceptical of it at the time and heard my feelings being called "irresponsible" by politicians who were quoting the official tabloid line

    1. Wayland Bronze badge

      Re: That must be...

      I wrote to my MP at the time describing the technical problems of holding the airport hostage with a drone for a week. The drone would fly for say 15 minutes and then have to fly back to base for a recharge. This would have to happen a lot giving ample opportunities to follow the drone back to it's owner.

      MP called that a conspiracy theory.

  6. steelpillow Silver badge

    Stealth cloak, anybody?

    Proof the Chinese* have developed a stealth cloak.

    Clearly left the zipper undone and was spotted just before it could do it up properly. What's the Mandarin for "Ooh! matron!"?

    * Ok, enough China-baiting: obviously the Russians or the CIA (who are the same people lizards anyway).

    1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

      Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

      I developed a stealth cloak myself, once.

      No idea where the bloody thing is.

      1. Sam Therapy

        Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

        Well, I'm not bloody well lending you mine. Wherever it is.

        1. steelpillow Silver badge

          Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

          OMG so funny when the cat walked over it and got its claws caught!

          I took a photo but by then the cat had got itself totally rolled up in the thing. Worst cat photo ever :(

        2. ButlerInstitute

          Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

          See "I can't find my camouflage net" - by Les Barker.

          1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

            Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

            "Ah, there you are Smith. I didn't see you in Camouflage class this morning,"

            "Thank you Sir"

    2. DrewWyatt

      Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

      If they have a cloaking device, surely that makes them Romulan?

      1. Potemkine! Silver badge

        Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

        Or Klingon! I've even heard rumours about a Federation starship equipped with one.

        1. Kane Silver badge

          Re: Stealth cloak, anybody?

          "I've even heard rumours about a Federation starship equipped with one."

          But that would be in breach of the Treaty of Algeron!

  7. Peter Christy

    Er, not quite!

    Actually, there WAS a drone there. After the initial scare, the police sent their own up to try and catch the (non-existent) miscreant. This triggered a further wave of reports, making the situation worse than it was originally.

    Since then, plod has been remarkably quiet on the subject, though it is common knowledge in "certain circles"...



    1. AdamWill

      Re: Er, not quite!

      Er, this is literally reported in both the article and the Guardian article that it cites.

      1. Wayland Bronze badge

        Re: Er Er Er Er, not quite!

        Once the story is over and the government have passed their drone legislation off the back of this non-event they don't then repeal it.

    2. P13DM

      Re: Er, not quite!

      As the person doing the FoIAs and delving into this, no one really knows if there was or wasn't a drone for the first sighting. But the first sighting is itself highly suspect. It was raining at the time of the first sighting and it had been raining for some time beforehand, so anyone flying a drone would have had to take off in the rain. Even these days IP rated drones aren't in most cases truly waterproof and they're big expensive and easy to photograph.

      Add to this LED lights on drones are low powered, so a drone would have to be close for its lights to be seen, close means even easier to describe and photograph. Most commercial drone pilots have to manually stick a strobe on their drones to fly at night.

      The weather data recorded at Gatwick is on Airprox Reality Check so can be downloaded and even used in a flight simulator.

      The coincidence in all of this, was one of the few drones that could have flown in the rain is the SkyRanger, most police forces can't even afford this model, the police team stationed at Gatwick being the exception that do own them. So it could have been there was no drone, it could be the police drones were mistaken for rogue drones, we don't know.

      We know the events after that don't add up and we know, thanks to the FoIA that the airport itself began to completely ignore the sightings of drones that were made 1 day after counter drone systems turned up, which were AeroScope, Skyperion & Falcon Shield.

      Falcon Shield is especially interesting as it had an optical sensor with thermal that can visually track a drone 1km away at night, this never saw a rogue drone, yet managed to pick up each deliberate friendly drone sortie.

  8. JimC

    Mandy Rice-Davies

    Hard for there to be any evidence either way.

    1. P13DM

      Re: Mandy Rice-Davies

      Not exactly, not when the defence company Leonardo have said a rogue drone was never detected, the counter drone systems are there at the airport to prove something is not there so the airport can remain open when someone sees something in the sky they suspect could be a drone.

      Admittedly the police never said anything at the time but from day 2 of Gatwick they had this on the roof at Gatwick which you can see in press photos at the time:

      If you pay attention to this you'll see a demonstration of a consumer drone (a DJI Phantom) being visually tracked at 1km. If you then look at the former police constable's evidence to a parliamentary committee he says you can't film a drone 1/2 mile away... Erm, clearly you can, then again every photographer already knew this...

  9. jake Silver badge

    One word: DUH!

    Occam's Razor & all that, innit.

    1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Re: One word: DUH!

      Occam's, or possibly Hanlon's.

  10. Robert 22

    There have been many situations where confirmation bias kicks in and those involved reach faulty conclusions, The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident was one such event - the crews of two US warships fired off a considerable amount of ordnance at an array of totally non-existent threats. Afterwards, this event was used to justify further escalation and military intervention.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Drone maker says 'no drone was there'


    They would say that, wouldn't they? Sales of drones would tank if it was the other way around.

    I wish there was a blanket ban on drones sold to the public. I get far too many flying over my garden especially on sunny days. Voyeurs about!

    1. bob_a_builder2

      Re: Drone maker says 'no drone was there'

      Voyeurism from a drone ?

      Seems a lot of effort/expense to go to to get some pictures of vey small people sitting in their gardens

      Could save themselves a lot of time and money looking on the net for mucky pictures

      Only people done so far for Voyeurism from the air, was a group in a police helicopter - and they have much better cameras than any consumer drone can carry

      1. MrNigel

        Re: Drone maker says 'no drone was there'

        As someone who has taken part in 'Helicopter Voyeurism' I can confirm such an activity does exist. I spent the Summer of 76 flying around the UK doing helicopter pleasure flights at country shows. My job was to take the tickets, load the passengers (bikini wearing ladies guided to sit next to the pilot) and lock the door.

        These were low level 90 second 'experience flights' and when we did the test flights with a stopwatch the pilot (the late, great Dick Meston) always looked for houses with swimming pools so we could fly-by them. The most memorable sighting was in Rhyl where a female house party took great delight in 'exposing' themselves when we flew over, as the afternoon progressed more flesh was revealed due to the consumption of alcohol and out flyover getting lower and lower. As a 16 year old this event is still etched in my mind much more than my BBC Model B activities a few years later. #goodolddays

  12. Ian Johnston Silver badge

    It all reminds me of that time Tony Blair sent tanks to Heathrow, claiming that there was good evidence that terrorists had a surface-to-air missile and were preparing to use it. Curiously enough it happened on the day when he was trying to get one of his wars through the commons. What a remarkable coincidence. And we've never heard anything about the missile since.

    1. Mooseman Silver badge

      "It all reminds me of that time Tony Blair sent tanks to Heathrow, claiming that there was good evidence that terrorists had a surface-to-air missile and were preparing to use it"

      Well, that was yet again an example of Blair relying too heavily on US-led intelligence, exactly the same as the WMD in Iraq. The Pentagon claimed to have foiled a terrorist plot to attack Heathrow shortly afterwards.

      "one of his wars"? Iraq 1.0 was a UN sanctioned operation. Iraq 2.0 was based on debatable/wonky US "intelligence", but given our so-called special relationship with the US why would he have cause to doubt it?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I always wondered exactly what they were planning to do with those tanks, even if there was a real threat. You can't really use those kind of weapons in a place crowded with civilians.

    3. Alan Johnson

      Tanks were pure publicity stunt

      It is very very clear that the tanks were a political stunt with absolutely no intelligence behind them and without any intent or belief that they woudl protect the public.

      How do I know? Because tanks or any sort of armoured vehicle are completely pointless and useless to prevent the claimed threat. If the threat had actually existed, or believed to exist, they would have reacted differently.

      The drone panic was clearly a genuine response to a perceived threat by the authourities albeit one that was almost certainly entirely non-existant.

      The contrast is quite striking a report of a drone just being near an airport leading to flights being cancelled versus a report of a group planning to use an anti-aircraft missile against aircraft resulting in no flights cancelled at all.


    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      In Cambridge we've gained a monstrous barrier across King's Parade "because of terrorists".

      1. Wayland Bronze badge

        Helps to reduce the spread of Covid too.

      2. jake Silver badge

        Looks to me like ...

        ... the only entities terrorizing the denizens of Cambridge are the city and county councilors.

        I dunno about you lot in Blighty, but here in the US we're far more afraid of the stupidity of our government than we are of any so-called "terrorists" ... probably because the .gov is entirely too massive and pervasive (and getting worse daily), and so-called "terrorists" are rarer than hen's teeth.

  13. NightFox

    "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..."

    So, a minority then.

  14. TheProf Silver badge

    It's Behind You

    I keep imagining Plod with a couple of sleigh bells sewn to the back of his jacket jumping about face to find the source of the jingling.

    That would probably cost the taxpayer a million quid too.

  15. ScottishYorkshireMan

    surely, its the money?

    Does anyone else remember, that the exact week of this 'drone' incident, Gatwick was up for sale? Or at least a portion of it was. Now, suppose that all of Gatwicks systems were current and state of the art perhaps a drone story wouldn't be needed. However, just suppose that their systems had suffered a meteoric failure, one that just might affect the sale and of course, the money. What is the best squirrel story that could deflect attention away from any decent journalist discovering this fact, you got it. A drone story.

    Sale goes ahead.

    Drone searchers pack up and go home.

    1. Wayland Bronze badge

      Re: surely, its the money?

      I did wonder if that was simply cover for the airport being out of action but then parliament pushed through some drone regulations.

  16. waldo kitty

    Not quite clear...

    it is not quite clear in the article but i'm guessing that Brendan Schulman was an executive at DJI and is now moving to Boston Dynamics?

    1. P13DM

      Re: Not quite clear...

      He left DJI on Friday, gave his views on Gatwick over the weekend and started at Boston Dynamics on the Monday.

      So he was expressing his personal view having kept an interest of the evidence being uncovered since 2018.

      He didn't speak out against Gatwick while at DJI as he didn't want to drag the company into the debate.

      He was one of the highest profile personalities in the drone industry.

      1. Robert Grant Silver badge

        Re: Not quite clear...

        Good job ensuring a high chance of being rehired by DJI one day :)

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Police and Drones Are A Joke.

    I personally have no faith in the police’s expertise in flying drones. Only a couple weeks ago recently they were flying a drone (with infra-red facilities) to try and spot a person who had jumped off the Beachy Head cliffs to the bottom in a suicide (550 + ft) at night. They were unable to spot the remains. The local RLNI inshore life boat was called out and they asked the police if they would fly the drone again. The police replied that they had no battery power left for their drone so could not fly it. Eventually the main large lifeboat was called out. To top this saga a coastguard helicopter was then called in to do a search. This whole event must have cost thousands of pounds probably, just because the police did not have the forethought to bring more drone batteries out with them on a call out. Not of course to mention the life risk of the searchers on the ground/sea at the bottom of the cliffs. People like Lemmings come to Beachy Head to jump over almost on a weekly basis, so you would have thought that more batteries would have been carried by the police as its a regular occurrence.

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Police and Drones Are A Joke.

      No, don't press THAT button!

    2. Wayland Bronze badge

      Re: Police and Drones Are A Joke.

      It better that the police stay on the ground and fly drones. When the police are in the sky both the pilot and the spotter get caught up in the search and then the pilot crashes the aircraft. At least a drone crash is unlikely to kill anyone.

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