LONDON — A married couple in Britain who were detained in connection with the illegal use of drones that sowed three days of chaos at Gatwick Airport were released on Sunday without charge, and the police said they had recovered a “damaged” drone near the airport that was being forensically examined.
Gatwick Airport also announced that it was offering a 50,000-pound reward (about $63,000) for information leading to “the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the criminal act that disrupted flights.”
The couple had been arrested on suspicion of disrupting civil aviation services and endangering people or operations, the police said in a statement. They are both from Crawley, a town just south of the airport, and the husband’s Facebook page suggested that he was a drone hobbyist. The couple’s pages included several photos of remote-controlled helicopters.
But on Sunday, Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley of the Sussex police said in a statement, “Both people have fully cooperated with our enquiries and I am satisfied that they are no longer suspects in the drone incidents at Gatwick.”
The first drone sighting was reported around 9 p.m. Wednesday, forcing officials to shut down the airport’s one runway in West Sussex, south of London, and ground or divert more than 1,000 flights over three days; the runway was buzzed more than 40 times within 48 hours.
The chaos affected more than 140,000 passengers in Britain and reverberated around the world, delaying tens of thousands of people traveling for the holidays. Britons and some lawmakers criticized officials’ response to the drone incursions, with some wondering why the police did not shoot down the device.
Officials said they had shut down the airport for fear that a drone could cause the deadly crash of a passenger plane by flying into its windows or getting sucked into an engine. The police described the drones seen as “industrial” models, and were not treating the episode as terrorism-related.
The drone incursions raised questions about the safety of Britain’s airports and the slow process of establishing a national registry for drone operators, which is planned for November.
The couple were arrested on Friday night, after the airport had been shut down and reopened several times, and as the frustration of travelers mounted. In a phone interview on Sunday night, Chief Tingley said that the couple had been held for “approximately 35 hours” for questioning because the police “needed to be really sure what we were dealing with.”
He defended the arrests as “lawful,” but criticized the public disclosure of “personal details” about the couple and information about the investigation. The couple’s age, identities and images were first published by The Telegraph. A member of Parliament, Henry Smith, whose constituency includes Gatwick Airport, identified the couple to The New York Times.
The Sussex police have declined to officially name the couple, and the chief said the police had offered them “full support” after they were released — including the presence of two officers outside their home if they needed it.
Chief Tingley said the damaged drone was found on Saturday morning near the perimeter fencing of Gatwick, in the small town of Horley, by a member of the public who alerted the police. He said an examination by a forensic science team in Britain was being “prioritized and fast-tracked.”
Investigators are looking for two things, he said: digital data on the drone and human DNA. He added, “We expect results within the next 12 hours.”
Earlier, he told the BBC that the authorities had an “open mind” about whether the device found could be one of the drones that had buzzed Gatwick Airport, Britain’s second-busiest. He said the authorities were sifting “many reports of drone activities” over the past few days, poring over CCTV footage and making house-to-house searches.
On Sunday, drone experts speaking on television raised the specter of copycat drone flights at Gatwick and other airports. But since Gatwick shut down briefly on Friday after a suspected drone sighting, no new drone incursions have been reported nearby, and a steady stream of flights resumed, with some delays.
Officials had called in the Army to provide technical assistance, and the airport’s Twitter account included a post on Friday saying, “The military measures we have in place at the airport have provided us with reassurance necessary to reopen our airfield.”
The chief said that when it came to handling a rogue drone, specialist officers on the ground always had the “tactical option to shoot it down.” In fact, he said, a commander had given them the authority to do just that within the first 12 hours of the drone sighting.
But he noted that drones move quickly, and shooting at the devices would have been untenable because the police were not likely to fire shots when people are present in other parts of the airport.
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