Gatwick Drones - the Social, Legal and Ethical Aspects of Computing

Published Jan 13, 2019 Andrejus Kostarevas ∼ 12 minutes


This report was written as part of our “Social, Legal and Ethical Aspects of Computing” University module, where the task was to pick a recent news article and analyse the implications from this point of view.


This analysis discusses the recent Gatwick Airport incident relating to drones. The story is first summarised based on news articles and then the social, legal and ethical implications relating to drone use in the article are identified. For social implications, the societal benefit of drones is looked at, including recreational use, law enforcement and nature conservation. Limitations of such benefit is also considered and linked back to the main article. Authorities and legislation are looked at and acts of law surrounding the Drone Code - a CAA guide for drone owners - are identified. This research is applied to the story and future legislation from the article is considered. Lastly, the ethical implications surrounding drone use are considered, including drone safety, noise and issues relating to privacy and surveillance. It is concluded that for how much benefit drones bring, their concept is still new and legislation seems to still be catching up.


Computing has rapidly evolved to be a large part of humanity. With artificial intelligence coming into play, decisions have started being taken away from humans and given to machines; and those machines can now go where humans easily cannot. This can be seen in technologies such as robotics, driverless cars and drones.

The analysed media story is about drones, or more specifically multirotor helicopters, e.g. consumer quadcopters. The debates surrounding drones have historically been heated, especially regarding the ethics of commercial drones.

Recently, the drone debate has resurfaced in the Gatwick Airport drone incident, where hundreds of flights were cancelled due to reports of drone sightings close to the airport’s runway. This caused major travel disruption, affecting over 100,000 passengers during the end-of-year holiday season of 2018 [1].


On December 19th, Gatwick’s runway was shut down after reports of devices flying over the airfield. Thousands of passengers were stranded or otherwise inconvenienced due to cancelled flights and flight diversions. The sightings would resurface as soon as the runway was reopened, implying the incident was a “deliberate act” of disruption [1]. The police and armed forces were deployed on December 20th, and the airport was back up and running on December 21st with more sightings shortly after. The final closure only lasted an hour, but there were knock-on delays on scheduled flights up until December 22nd [2].

During the crisis, Gatwick spent £5 million on drone defense systems, and thousands of man hours were lost to the disruption and subsequent police investigation [1]. The alleged drone(s) used for the disruption were of “industrial specification”, likely pre-programmed with the specific route before takeoff, thus effectively eliminating the need of remotely piloting the drone, which could be tracked by radar. This may be part of the reason the investigation has not found the true suspect as of yet.

Societal benefit of Drones

Drone use has gained enormous popularity amongst consumers and commercial entities alike. It provides an affordable means to gather highly detailed geospatial information, which is instrumental in settlement development [3]. Many photography/videography enthusiasts also operate drones for recreational use.

Aerial drones also offer a flexible, accurate and affordable solution to problems such as nature conservation and law enforcement, potentially increasing the overall safety and psychological wellbeing of society [4].

Recreational Use

Drones are, in general, considered to be safer for the operator than piloted aircraft. This is due to factors such as the pilot not being injured in the event of a crash, and that drones are generally smaller than piloted aircraft. Recreational use of drones can be socially empowering for individuals and groups as it provides a means to independently collect their own data [4].

Law Enforcement

Certain countries already employ drones in protecting civilians. Some law enforcement agencies have historically used drones for locating lost children [5], assisting rescuers during natural disasters, and locating bombs. More industrial specification drones are capable of achieving high speeds, capable of tracking criminals, and temperature cameras can pick up body heat for finding criminals in hiding [6].

Nature Conservation

Drones address certain challenges biodiversity conservation faces. These can be classed as research applications, e.g counting and monitoring wildlife in a wide range of environments, and direct conservation applications, including forest restoration and combating illegal hunting of wildlife.


Consumer drones are still a relatively new technology. As seen by the story, drone misuse can easily endanger people, aircraft and an entire international airport. Legislation in this area is still quite new, which is why a disruption on this scale was possible with very little trace.

However, according to the article, certain travellers found it “strange” that two drones had led to such a disruption. According to them, one would expect better security in place and emergency actions in place for such a disruption [1]. This can be seen as ill-preparation from both sides.

Laws surrounding Drone Use

The main article mentions that “it is illegal to fly a drone within 1km of an airport or airfield boundary and flying above 400 feet is also banned” and that “endangering the safety of an aircraft is also a criminal offence, which can carry a prison sentence of five years”, however it fails to link it to any legislation [1].

Aviation safety in the UK is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). They determine policies for the use of airspace, the economic regulation of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, as well licensing and financial fitness of airlines [7].

Drone Code

Along with regulating commercial airliners, the CAA regulate recreational drones, model aircraft and other types of unmanned aircraft [8]. For this, the CAA together with the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) have prepared the Drone Code.

The two-page Drone Code document details several guidelines to safe recreational drone use [9] - for this, amongst other things, the drone pilot must:

  • Not fly their drone above 400 feet
  • Keep the right distance from people and properly
    • People and properties - 150 feet
    • Crowds and built up areas - 500 feet
  • Be legally liable for each flight
  • Stay away from aircraft, airport and airfields

Although the Drone Code mentions offenses and liability, it itself is not legislation, as it is published to “assist drone users in flying safely” [9]. This is mistaken by a few articles [10], who go in favour of keeping drone legality simplistic. Legislation

Drone legislation stems heavily from civil aviation - the two most notable for this case being the Civil Aviation Act 1982 and the Aviation Security Act 1982. The Aviation Act [11] is built upon by drone laws, while the Security Act in particular is where “endangering safety of aircraft” is an offense [12].

The two main pieces of drone legislation are The Air Navigation Order 2016 and the more recent Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018. Both of these exercise the powers conferred by certain sections of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 [13] [14].

The Air Navigation Order 2016 and The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018 set out provisions relating to Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA) and their operators/pilots [13]. The Amendment is the legislation that the Drone Code law is built upon, as it defines height restrictions on SUA flights without CAA’s permission as well as no-fly Zones in or around aerodromes without their operator permission [14].

Applying Laws

In this article, the remote drone pilot allegedly flew it over the Outer Zone of an aerodrome into the Inner Zone, without prior permission of the active air traffic control unit, which is an offense under 94B(3)(b) of The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018. If the drone was not owned by the remote pilot, the operator would also have offended under §94B (3) (a) of The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018.

If the drone was pre-programmed to follow a certain flight path, and no remote pilot was present, the operator would still be liable for the no-fly zone offense as well as endangering aircraft under 3(1) of the Aviation Security Act 1982. An interesting point is that in this case there would presumably be no line of sight between the operator and the SUA, which is not an offense under The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018.

Future Legislation

The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018 already mentions three new pieces of legislation to take effect soon - requirement for registration as a SUA operator, competency of remote pilots and requirements for acknowledgement of such competency. The CAA is not required to accept applications or acknowledgements for any of these before 1st October 2019 [14].

Based on the events transpiring at Gatwick Airport, there are plans to extend the Outer no-fly Zone around airports, which follows a consultation into the use of drones which began in July. New legislation will also give police additional powers to land drones and require operators to produce documentation [15].

Ethical Implications

Widely regarded as the most controversial area, drone ethics cover a variety of applications - recreational, civilian/commercial and military. The ethical debate stems heavily from the fact that drones are not fully autonomous, and that drones are merely an extension of the persons controlling the drone, who are subject to ethical evaluation based upon their actions [16].


Since by law drones must be flown at a low altitude, safety is a concern. Drone blades often have a very high angular momentum, and can easily damage anything it comes in contact with. This is the primary reason why Gatwick Airport runways were shut down during drone sightings - a mid air collision between a drone and a commercial airplane can inflict major damage [17].

Although flying close to people and buildings is not mentioned in any of the covered legislation, it is part of the Drone Code [9]. As such, the Drone Code could be classed as an ethics guide to Drone use, rather than a stand-alone piece of legislation.


Drone blades are not only harmful, but also very loud. The legal limit for flying confines drones low to the ground, which may be disturbing for both human population on the ground and wildlife [18]. Although case law does not cover airspace over private property [19] community efforts exist in helping drone owners plan their flights to avoid sensitive areas [20].

Privacy and Surveillance

Perhaps the area that attracts the most debate, drones can easily become an invasion of privacy. Consumer drones, although can be used for artistic purposes, can easily accidentally take a picture of another person, or be used to stalk other people, both of which equate to an invasion of a person’s right to privacy [16].

According to some civilians, police drones are the equivalent of having a “Big Brother” in the sky [5]. Certain property management companies conduct surveillance of their properties using commercial drones, often involving gathering data about individuals. Both of these also an invasion of people’s right to privacy [16].


Small unmanned aircraft is a new concept that legislation is still catching up to. The discussions surrounding drones have historically been heated, and it should be no surprise that the Gatwick Airport incident has sparked a major flame in the debate. This event may be a driving point in change surrounding drone laws in the UK and will affect drone operators all across the country [17].

For how much societal benefit arises from consumer drones, they have their own risks that are still being assessed. Drones see a lot of ethical debate around them as well, however this has more to do with the drone pilots and operators rather than the drones themselves [16].

Further from the Gatwick incidents, Heathrow airport was temporarily shut down on the 8th January, 2019 after a drone sighting was reported [21].

Given the nature of consumer quadcopters, these risks could have been assessed during drone design manufacture. Some drone models feature no-fly zones when planning GPS fly paths that prevent them from flying in restricted areas, such as aerodromes or prisons [22]. However, other drone manufacturers forewent this implementation, which could have lead to this incident taking place.

In general, the social, legal, and ethical implications of computing should be considered during the design and development of new technologies, especially when they can be fully autonomous and function without human input. This ties in heavily with the recent advancements of artificial intelligence, which have went as far as to create a makeshift “battle against humanity” [23].

Ideal technology-based products should be “ethical by design”, instead of relying on the users to be inherently ethical [24].


[1] “Gatwick Airport: Drones ground flights,” BBC, 20-Dec-2018. [Accessed: 9-Jan-2019].

[2] “Gatwick runway reopens after drone chaos,” BBC, 21-Dec-2018. [Accessed: 9-Jan-2019].

[3] M. Gevaert et al., “Evaluating the Societal Impact of Using Drones to Support Urban Upgrading Projects,” ISPRS Int., 10-Mar-2018. [Accessed: 9-Jan-2019].

[4] C. Sandbrook, “The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation,” Springer, 2015. [Accessed: 9-Jan-2019].

[5] S. Sengupta, “Rise of Drones in U.S. Drives Efforts to Limit Police Use,” The New York Times, 16-Feb-2013. [Accessed: 12-Jan-2019].

[6] “Social Issues - In Drones We Trust,” Google Sites. [Accessed: 12-Jan-2019].

[7] “Civil Aviation Authority,” GOV.UK. [Accessed: 10-Jan-2019].

[8] “Unmanned aircraft and drones,” Civil Aviation Authority. [Accessed: 10-Jan-2019].

[9] “TheDrone Code,” Civil Aviation Authority. [Accessed: 10-Jan-2019].

[10] “Drone flying rules: Brush up on drone laws after Gatwick chaos,” Alphr. [Accessed: 10-Jan-2019].

[11] E. Participation, “Civil Aviation Act 1982,”, 01-Jun-1982. [Accessed: 10-Jan-2019].

[12] E. Participation, “Aviation Security Act 1982,”, 01-Aug-1982. [Accessed: 11-Jan-2019].

[13] “The Air Navigation Order 2016,” [Accessed: 11-Jan-2019].

[14] “The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2018,” [Accessed: 11-Jan-2019].

[15] “Police to get new powers to tackle illegal drone use,” BBC, 07-Jan-2019. [Accessed: 13-Jan-2019].

[16] R. Wilson, “Ethical issues with use of Drone aircraft,” IEEE, 2014. [Accessed: 12-Jan-2019].

[17] J. Wakefield, “Gatwick airport: How can a drone cause so much chaos?,” BBC, 21-Dec-2018. [Accessed: 12-Jan-2019].

[18] C. Dempsey, “Drones and GIS: A Look at the Legal and Ethical Issues,” GIS Lounge, 18-Dec-2016. [Accessed: 12-Jan-2019].

[19] “Flying Drones,” Lake District National Park. [Accessed: 12-Jan-2019].

[20] “No Fly Drones,” No Fly Drones. [Accessed: 12-Jan-2019].

[21] “Heathrow airport: Drone sighting halts departures,” BBC, 08-Jan-2019. [Accessed: 13-Jan-2019].

[22] “Fly Safe Geo Zone Map,” DJI Official. [Accessed: 13-Jan-2019].

[23] “AlphaGo,” DeepMind. [Accessed: 13-Jan-2019].

[24] M. Mulvenna et al., “Ethical by Design - A Manifesto,” Ulster University. [Accessed: 13-Jan-2019].


Reference: [x] A. Kostarevas, “Gatwick Drones - the Social, Legal and Ethical Aspects of Computing”, 2019. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: dd-MMM-yyyy]