A motorist has claimed he saw the Gatwick drone culprit packing up his unmanned aircraft and cycling away, as the suspect remained at large tonight despite a two-day manhunt.
Paul Motts, 52, said he had seen a man in his 30s, wearing hi-vis clothing, crouching over a drone in a country lane near the West Sussex airport.
He said the suspicious man had been trying to ‘get away as fast as he could’ as Sussex Police combed the countryside to find the drone pilot, The Sun reported.
Police have looked into theories that a ‘lone wolf’ eco-warrior or group of activists could be behind the drone mayhem but have yet to make any arrests.
Paul Motts, pictured, said he had seen a man in his 30s, wearing hi-vis clothing, crouching over a drone in a country lane near the West Sussex airport
Mr Motts told the newspaper: ‘I was delivering a parcel and drove past a suspicious man in fluorescent cycling gear crouching over a large drone which was all lit up.
‘It looked like he was packing the drones away. Two minutes later we turned around and came across him cycling away.
‘I expect he wanted to disassemble the drone as quickly as possible and get away as fast as he could.’
The man had been standing over one 4ft drone and another 2ft device, Mr Motts reported.
Police investigating the attack do not think it is terror related but Transport Secretary Chris Grayling today refused to rule out it being the actions of a foreign state.
A lone wolf eco-warrior or a group of climate change activists are also speculated to be behind the most damaging drone assault on a UK airport in history.
Airports are prime targets for environmental demonstrators angry about climate change, who have chained themselves to aircraft, invaded runways and blocked access roads in recent years.
The sabotage which grounded hundreds of flights and left thousands stranded is believed to have been ‘targeted’ and the sophistication of the equipment involved suggests it was well-planned and financed.
Gatwick is also currently at the centre of a bitter row over pollution fears around plans to use its emergency runway to bring in more than 100,000 additional flights a year.
Climate action movement Extinction Rebellion have staged a series of stunts in recent months, including this ‘die-in’ at a Cambridge shopping centre
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the drones, suggesting it is more likely to be a ‘lone wolf’ activist. Pictured: Extinction Rebellion action in London
Asked if it was possible the drone was being operated by an agent of a foreign government, Mr Grayling told BBC Breakfast: ‘I don’t want to speculate on that, we genuinely don’t know who it is or what the motivation was.’
‘I think it’s unlikely to be, but at the moment I’m not ruling out anything’, he added.
The Cabinet minister also said that whoever the perpetrator or perpetrators were, they needed to ‘go to jail for a long time’.
If no foreign agent was involved, that suggests three possibilities are among potential suspects; an organised campaign group, a lone eco-extremist or an anarchic hobbyist looking to cause carnage.
Other, less likely theories put forward include a local angry about aircraft noise, immigration activists or an extortionist trying to get money out of a business linked to the airport.
The suspects: Who could have carried out the drone attack?
Environmental activist group: Groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Plane Stupid have been carrying out increasingly high-profile stunts in recent months, but no one has claimed responsibility over yesterday’s action.
‘Lone wolf’: The incident may be the work of an anarchistic loner who wanted to make an impact and cause carnage.
Foreign power: Some experts say the sophistication of the equipment used suggests a hostile foreign government may be involved.
Anti-noise campaigners: It is possible a local resident with a grudge against aircraft noise carried out the drone flights in retaliation at the airport.
Immigration campaigners: In the wake of convictions of the ‘Stansted 15’ earlier this month, a case involving activists who stopped a deportation flight, it is possible a copycat campaigner tried to stop a planned deportation.
Extortionist: Some have suggested an extortionist could be using the financial damage caused by the drone flight to extort money out of one of the many businesses hurt.
The most high-profile ‘direct action’ groups in the UK include Extinction Rebellion, who shut down central London in anti-traffic protests last month, and Plane Stupid, whose members chained themselves to Heathrow’s runway in 2015.
Meanwhile 15 activists are facing jail after storming into Stansted Airport and grounding a Home Office deportation plane heading to Africa in March 2017.
The group caused chaos using bolt cutters on the perimeter fence and chained themselves to a 767 chartered to transport detainees from UK detention centres back to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. They will be sentenced on February 4.
But nobody has yet claimed responsibility for this week’s action, raising suspicions that it a saboteur acting alone.
The drone’s pilot may have been operating from a moving location, a car or a van, navigating the gadget using an mobile phone or tablet, an expert has said.
Former army major Robert Garbett, a government adviser, said the pilot would not need to have direct sight of the drone, explaining why the flying device was able to land and disappear as soon as a police helicopter began searching the area.
The aeronautical engineer told MailOnline: ‘It is very hard for the police to detect that as sophisticated equipment is needed and that is why the army has been brought in.’
Police are still hunting the person or gang flying the unmanned aircraft (pictured) – but do not believe the sabotage is terror-related with eco-warriors the prime suspects
Passengers are forced to sleep in departure lounges at Gatwick Airport today after the drone was spotted more than 50 times over the runway in West Sussex
Mr Garbett, chairman of the British Standards Institution committee for UK drones, founded the Drone Major group in 2017 to offer specialist advice on technology to governments and companies.
He said it was unlikely the operator who has caused such disruption would be sitting in a hotel room or hidden away.
‘This is all about the C2 signal, the command and control signal. The operator has to have a strong signal to fly the drone from a distance.
‘That is illegal, but the person doing this is not worried about any of the restrictions that have been put in place for drone operators.’
The operator would be able to pre-programme it to fly for a certain period of time and land at a pre-selected location where the batteries could be changed.
‘He would be able to launch the drone from one place, and while it is airborne drive to another location and pick it up,’ said Garbett.
He said commercial drones allow for designated routes to be loaded into the GPS system and controlled automatically rather like an autopilot on a passenger jet.
Sussex Police, in charge of patrolling the airport, today revealed that Scotland Yard and officers from neighbouring Surrey Police have joined the manhunt.
Steve Coulson, managing director of drone detection firm Coptrz, said it appeared to be a ‘targeted attack’ that could have originated abroad.
He told the Times: ‘The operator may not even be in the country. You can have a secure internet link from China or Russia and control it remotely, just like we control drones remotely from Arizona and fly them over Afghanistan.
‘I’m surprised how brazen this is. I thought we might get some low-level stuff this year but somebody or some group are pushing the envelope.’
Pollution fears over Gatwick’s plans to use its emergency runway for passengers
Gatwick Airport plans to widen its emergency runway to bring it into full passenger use.
The scheme, revealed in October, would enable the UK’s second busiest airport to accommodate up to 109,000 extra flights a year.
Opponents of Gatwick expansion claim the proposal would increase the problems of noise, air pollution and road congestion already suffered by surrounding communities.
A bid to build a new second runway was rejected by the UK Government in favour of Heathrow expansion in December 2016.
The airport says it could begin using its emergency runway for regular flights by the summer of 2025, just months before Heathrow’s third runway is due to open.
The centre lines of Gatwick’s main and emergency runways are separated by 198 metres. The plan involves increasing the gap by widening the emergency runway by 12 metres.
Its main runway would continue to be used for larger planes to take off and all aircraft to land but smaller aircraft such as the A321, A320 and B737 could take off from the emergency runway.
The airport expects to spend up to £500million on the airfield works. Once opened, annual flight numbers are expected to increase from 281,000 today to as many as 390,000 in 2032-33, according to Gatwick’s figures.
Some 350,000 people face having their Christmas plans ruined as disruption continued at Gatwick today.
Drone expert Carys Kaiser told MailOnline: ‘It’s definitely not a hobbyist who’s thinking I’ll get some extra footage from a YouTube channel.
‘It is definitely something that is more organised in some capacity because obviously the drones that I fly and the drones that most people fly in the UK have this geofencing and we can’t get them to take off that close to an airport.
‘So this is somebody that has possibly hacked their software or possibly modified their drone in some way.’
Ms Kaiser added: ‘[The manufacturers] have all developed this software to ensure that people can’t just take a drone near an airport and take off.
‘You get lock zones, so you’ll get a yellow zone that could be a stately home or a football ground – it will say to you do you have permission, and you have to put in details and the manufacturer knows who it is, and if there was an incident they could trace it.
‘When you get an airport that’s a red zone, and you can’t unlock it unless you get written permission from an airport. You have to submit documentation, wait for five days and then you get an unlock code so you can fly.
‘As with anything that’s malicious, people will hack the software, modify the drones to get around all of that. If you’ve got malicious intent, you’ve got a malicious mind, you don’t abide by the rules.’
A former Army captain told The Sun that the attacker had showed ‘some serious capability’ and could be a ‘genius’ with a PhD.
Richard Gill said: ‘Perhaps we are dealing with a person who just wants to do it to show how clever they are.
‘He or she is just causing hell because they can and they want to test their limits. It’s the thrill of getting away with it.’
No person or group has yet claimed responsibility for the sabotage, but officials are said to be working on the theory the saboteur could be an ‘eco-warrior’.
A Whitehall source told the Daily Telegraph that an eco-protest was a ‘definite line of inquiry’.
Environmental activist groups have previously targeted airports, in particular to protest the proposed expansion of Heathrow.
What should you do if you have a flight from Gatwick Airport?
If you are due to fly from or to Gatwick:
- Do not travel to the airport before checking your flight status
- Call your airline and check Gatwick’s website for updates
If your flight is already cancelled:
- Talk to your airline to arrange an alternative flight – avoid rebooking it yourself if possible
- If you make any other arrangements, or have to pay for accommodation or transport, keep all receipts and tickets
- Check with your insurer or credit card provider whether you are covered
When asked why someone would want to disrupt the airport, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘There’s no sense of motive – there’s no suggestion that this is a terrorist act.
‘The counter-terrorist police have been very clear that they’ve seen no evidence that this is intended to be a terrorist act. It’s clearly someone who wants to disrupt Gatwick Airport and there’s an intense police operation.
‘We’ve got two police forces in Surrey and Sussex working together to try and catch the perpetrator, supported by the Met, supported by the counter-terrorism police and no evidence of a terrorist link at the moment.’
Sussex Police also said that ‘our assessment, based upon the information that we have available to us, is that this incident is not terrorism-related’.
The runway has been closed almost constantly since two drones were spotted being flown inside Gatwick’s perimeter at 9pm on Wednesday.
It was reopened at 3am on Thursday but was closed 45 minutes later after the drones re-emerged.
Chris Woodroofe said 120,000 passengers’ flights had been disrupted and the drone that has plagued the airport since Wednesday evening is still in the air.
Night-flight restrictions will be lifted at other airports – probably those which serve London – so that ‘more planes can get in to and out of the country’, Mr Grayling said.
‘Apologies for the residents affected, but it’s right and proper that we try and sort people’s Christmases out,’ he said.
Timeline: How the drone chaos at Gatwick Airport has unfolded
After a drone caused chaos for tens of thousands of passengers at Gatwick Airport, we look at how the events have unfolded so far:
9pm – Gatwick suspends flights in and out of the airport after reports of two drones flying near the airfield. Some planes are diverted to other airports.
3am – The runway reopens
3.45am – The runway shuts again after a further report of drone sightings
10.20am – Sussex Police reveal the flying of drones close to the airfield is ‘a deliberate act to disrupt the airport’, but ‘there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror related’
12.20pm – The airport’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe says around 110,000 passengers are due to travel on Thursday, most of whom will see cancellations and disruptions.
3.50pm – The Ministry of Defence says police are in ‘ongoing discussions’ with the Army about assisting with the operation to find the drones.
5.50pm – Gatwick’s chief executive officer Stewart Wingate says the drone flights are ‘highly targeted’ and have ‘been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas’.
9.30pm – Mr Woodroofe says the airport will remain closed for the rest of the evening after drone activity was reported ‘within the last hour’.
9.30pm – Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley, of Sussex Police, says there have been more than 50 sightings of the device in the past 24 hours. He reveals that shooting down the drone is a ‘tactical option’ being considered by police.
5.58am – According to flight tracking website Flightradar24, a plane from East Midlands Airport lands at Gatwick.
6.30am – Gatwick Airport says the runway is ‘currently available’ and that a ‘limited number’ of planes are scheduled for departure and arrival.