Tribunal Rules: Sussex Police Must Release Gatwick Drone Information

Tribunal Rules: Sussex Police Must Release Gatwick Drone Information

Over the last several months efforts have continued via the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) to seek details about events that took place at Gatwick Airport in 2018, when an alleged drone shut down the airport and Sussex Police took over managing the incident which they code-named Operation Trebor

While several individuals have been quizzing authorities about events in 2018, Ian Hudson of UAV Hive on X (formerly Twitter), chose to fight 3 cases where the Information Commissioner had deemed that the public interest was better served by allowing Sussex Police to refuse detailed answers.

The hearing of the cases took place at a First-tier Tribunal which is a specialist court dealing with disputes on matters such as information rights.

The Tribunal decided in favour of Ian Hudson against The Information Commissioner for 2 of the 3 cases, [2024] UKFTT 166 (GRC) and [2024] UKFTT 168 (GRC).

The decisions instructed Sussex Police to release more information about the incident, relating to the purchase of the counter-drone system and also an elaboration of the timeline of events which was vague in the official Operational Trebor Debrief that the force reluctantly published with numerous redactions in 2021.

Back in 2018, the technology existed to detect drones, most drones in the UK are manufactured by DJI and their AeroScope product is more than capable of dealing with 95% of any potential incidents. What did not exist back then were robust procedures so it is understandable and acceptable, that mistakes would be made and that decisions would not be as efficient as they ought to have been.

What is not acceptable is painting a picture of a drone being present throughout the event or even at all, when the evidence the authorities hold says otherwise.

Not only did the RAF deploy with a military-grade counter-drone system made up of Leonardo Falcon Shield and Metis Skyperion but West Yorkshire Police commanding the National Police Air Service deployed helicopters within minutes back in 2018. Leonardo is on record that no rogue drones were detected, and West Yorkshire Police revealed recently via FOIA that the skilled aircrews using military-grade optical hardware only recorded the absence of a rogue drone too.

One of the arguments by the Information Commissioner implied that the UK drone industry was so small the public interest was better served maintaining the status quo of ambiguity around the incident. However, the Tribunal accepted arguments by Hudson that the drone industry was not small and had suffered reputational damage as a result of Sussex Police’s narrative.

Members of the global drone community provided supporting statements for Hudson’s expertise on events which was noted by the Tribunal.


Background:

  • In December 2018, drone sightings caused significant disruption at Gatwick Airport.
  • Ian Hudson submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out if the drone was sighted between 7:00 am and 8:15 am on December 20th, 2018.
  • Sussex Police refused to confirm or deny whether they held this information, citing an exemption to protect ongoing investigations.
  • Hudson appealed this refusal to the Information Commissioner, who upheld the police’s decision.
  • Hudson subsequently appealed to the First-tier Tribunal.

Tribunal  Decision:

  • The First-tier Tribunal ruled in favour of Ian Hudson.
  • The Tribunal found the exemption Sussex Police relied on (section 30(3) of FOIA) does apply to this case, as it relates to an ongoing investigation.
  • However, the Tribunal concluded that the public interest in disclosing the information outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exemption.

Key Reasons for the Tribunal’s Decision:

  • Disclosure of this limited information would not significantly compromise the investigation or Sussex Police’s ability to respond to similar threats.
  • The public has a strong interest in understanding the circumstances of this case, and this disclosure could enhance transparency without harming the investigation.

Outcome:

  • The Sussex Police must disclose whether they hold information about a drone sighting at Gatwick Airport between 7:00 am and 8:15 am on December 20th, 2018.

It’s concerning that the responsibility for pursuing this transparency fell to me, an individual, rather than the UK’s alleged national commercial drone body, ARPAS. Their inaction is a missed opportunity to serve the industry they represent.

Well done, Ian! Your perseverance is truly commendable. This victory represents just a single piece of the complex puzzle you’re assembling through your persistent FOIA requests related to the Gatwick drone incident. The truth is out there.

The bigger picture raises important questions. If, as many suspect, the entire incident was a false alarm, thousands of passengers may be entitled to compensation from Gatwick Airport for flight disruptions. This situation bears an unsettling resemblance to the Post Office scandal.

The UK drone world needs to buy Ian a pint

Gary Mortimer

Founder and Editor of sUAS News | Gary Mortimer has been a commercial balloon pilot for 25 years and also flies full-size helicopters. Prior to that, he made tea and coffee in air traffic control towers across the UK as a member of the Royal Air Force.