East Midlands Airport 'drone' sighting 'could have been a bird'

Drone in the sky Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Police said "the movement" of the flying object suggested it was a drone

A reported drone sighting that caused the closure of East Midlands Airport could just have been a bird, according to experts.

Reports of a drone being spotted at the airport on Wednesday morning are still being investigated by police.

They said "the movement" of the object suggested it was a drone.

However, an expert who analyses reports of sightings said it was "extremely unlikely" a drone would have been able to fly near the airport.

This is because of something called "geo-fencing", which prevents most commercially available drones from being flown near airports.

"The drone simply won't take off if it is in a restricted location," said Simon Dale, from Airprox Reality Check.

"It is therefore extremely unlikely that a drone was operating in proximity to East Midlands Airport."

Mr Dale said the sighting could have been a bird, a party balloon, a Chinese lantern or a manned aircraft in the distance.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Experts said the "drone" could have been a bird

Sion Roberts, a former RAF pilot who trains people to fly drones, said geo-fencing was "easily hackable" and "doesn't take a rocket scientist".

However, he also said the sighting could have been caused by a bird.

"It could have been anything," he said.

"There are even stories of plastic bags floating around in the air and they've been called drones.

"I tried to look into it to see who made the report because if it was a pilot coming in to land when he's busy and sees something going past the cockpit, it could have been a bird or something like that.

"The airport was only shut for an hour so they obviously discounted it quite quickly."

Drones and airports

Image copyright DJI
Image caption The blue area is an Authorization Zone which extends 4km (2.5 miles) around the runway at East Midlands Airport, and the red area is a Restricted Zone
  • It is illegal to fly a drone within 5km (3 miles) of an airport without permission
  • The vast majority of drones sold in the UK are manufactured by DJI, which uses geo-fencing to prevent the devices being flown near airports
  • If drone pilots attempt to fly within an Authorization Zone or Restricted Zone they will be prompted with a warning and the drone will not be able to take off
  • People can "unlock" an Authorization Zone but this requires having a DJI account verified with a credit card, debit card or mobile phone number
  • Restricted Zones can also be unlocked, but this involves supplying documents proving you have permission to fly in the area
  • It is also possible to hack drones to get around the geo-fencing, or build your own drone

Few details have been given about the East Midlands Airport sighting.

On Wednesday, the airport said in a statement: "A drone sighting at East Midlands Airport this morning is currently subject to an ongoing Leicestershire Police investigation.

"The airport closed briefly between the hours of 8am and 9am. Impact on flights has been minimal."

Leicestershire Police said it could not say where the alleged drone was spotted, what it looked like or who saw it, citing "operational reasons".

However, it said there had been three separate sightings and "the movement of it suggested it was a drone". The force did not elaborate on how the object was moving.

Police confirmed there were no videos or photographs of the alleged drone.

Reports of drones seen at Gatwick Airport led to chaos just before Christmas.

The runway at the UK's second busiest airport was closed for 33 hours between 19 and 21 December - causing about 1,000 flights to be cancelled or delayed, affecting about 140,000 passengers.

'Clearly a party balloon'

Airprox Reality Check was founded to scrutinise reports of incidents involving drones.

Mr Dale pointed out that many other reports have turned out to be false, such as a suspected drone which hit a British Airways plane but could have been a plastic bag.

"We are yet to see a confirmed drone sighting," he said.

"We saw a drone described as 'red, spherical and about football sized' in a report before. Clearly that was a party balloon.

"With constant, incorrect, media reports of drone sightings pilots are expecting to see drones, and confirmation bias comes into play."

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