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Electric fences and tougher regulation: Can drones be stopped from wreaking airport chaos?

Key Points
  • Flights were resumed at London’s Gatwick Airport on Friday after a rogue drone invaded its airspace.
  • One aviation expert told CNBC that authorities could look to prisons for inspiration on preventing a similar incident occurring in future.
  • Another industry insider said drones should not be easily accessible to the public.
Passengers stranded at Gatwick wait for updates on their travel options on December 20, 2018.
Athanasios Gioumpasis | Getty Images

Technology that stops drones delivering contraband to prisons could be used to prevent chaotic flight disruptions like those seen at London's Gatwick Airport this week, an industry expert told CNBC.

A drone flying in the airspace around Gatwick caused the airport to shut down on Wednesday and Thursday, affecting at least 120,000 passengers. Flights resumed on Friday morning, but more journeys are expected to be delayed, canceled, or diverted.

Brian Burridge, chief executive of the U.K.'s Royal Aeronautical Society, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" Friday there was potentially a commercial solution to the issue.

"Given the prevalence of drones and very large drones in military operations, defense companies have been working on this for some time and mitigating measures (do exist)," he said. "For these commercial drones, technologies are being developed mainly (to confront) the way drones are used to deliver contraband to prisons."

Burridge said companies Drone Defence and Eclipse Digital Solutions had provided what was "essentially an electronic fence" around a prison on the island of Guernsey, a British Crown dependency near the French coast.

Gatwick drone chaos was planned, aeronautics expert says

"The perimeter of the prison, which only has 140 inmates, is tiny compared with an airport — but that technology in my judgement is scalable, so it could be deployed on large areas eventually," he added.

"(To do this on) a tiny scale such as a prison in Guernsey I think costs under a million pounds, but airports often have 12 to 15-mile perimeters, so it's a very large area (and) the degree to which the same technology would have the power to cover a larger area remains to be seen."

Burridge speculated there would now be "a flurry of activity" among regulators and governments to determine the optimum solution for any copycat scenarios.

"(So far) there's only really been hobbyists flying their drones too close to airports, but even the law on where and when you can fly is insufficient to guarantee the levels of safety that we expect in aviation," he told CNBC.

'Drones are a weapon'

Infrastructure finance consultant Martin Blaiklock agreed that the authorities and U.K. government seemed to have done little to protect the public from this kind of incident.

"I wouldn't allow people to have drones unless they were properly licensed and regulated," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" Friday. "In effect drones are a type of weapon, so should we allow them to be in the hands of the public at large?"

Blaiklock said he had recently received an email from eBay advertising a drone that could fly for 30 minutes at a height of around 19,000 feet.

"How many aircraft fly over the City of London at less than 18,000 feet? I would have thought quite a few," he added.

"The impact of drones on aircraft should have been foreseen long ago, and (airspace) planners don't seem to have taken this into account at all. The collateral damage that could be created by an airliner coming down over a suburban area due to the impact of drone could be very significant."

Since the incident at Gatwick, another suggestion gaining traction has been using trained eagles to take down rogue aircraft, as is practice in the Netherlands.

UK govt not doing enough to protect public from drone incidents, expert says