Heathrow and Gatwick, the U.K.’s largest airports, are reported to be investing in military-grade anti-drone equipment worth several million pounds, after drone attacks brought Gatwick airport to a standstill over the Christmas holiday.
It is thought that the equipment ordered includes Israeli manufacturer Rafael’s Drone Dome system, believed to have been used by the military last week at Gatwick. The ‘military capability’ used at Gatwick has now been withdrawn, the Ministry of Defence said yesterday. Should this worry passengers? Maybe.
Drones are becoming an increasing problem in civil aviation. According to Airprox, there has been a 168% increase in drone and plane near-misses over the last recorded two-year period. In October 2018, a Virgin Atlantic B787-9 jet narrowly missed a collision with a drone by just 20 feet, according to the pilots’ report. The aircraft was flying at 3,200 feet above the residential London district of Clapham on its approach to Heathrow. The UKAB report rated it as the highest possible Category A incident, meaning there was ‘a serious risk of collision.’
“It’s vital that action is taken to regulate the use of drones near airports, and we urge the government to consider further proposals,” a spokesman for Virgin Atlantic said after the incident.
Experts are concerned that a collision between a drone and aircraft could create similar effects to a severe bird strike, possibly disabling a jet engine or smashing the glass of the cockpit windscreen. When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of Canada geese shortly after take-off from La Guardia airport, both engines were destroyed before Capt Chesley Sullenberger landed the plane on the Hudson River.
Aside from safety considerations, the commercial losses that go with having to suspend flights because of drones can be crippling for the airlines. When Stockholm’s Arlanda airport was forced to close twice in August 2017 because of a drone near the runway, incoming flights had to be diverted to land at nearby airports – and then re-fuelled to continue onto Arlanda later. At Gatwick, the airlines will have to compensate passengers for nearly 1000 cancelled and delayed flights.
Now it seems Gatwick and Heathrow have made an initial commitment to investing in anti-drone technology to avoid that happening again. In December, Vinci Airports bought a majority stake of 50.01% in Gatwick from the U.S. investment firm Global Infrastructure Partners. Heathrow has been owned since 2006 by a consortium led by the family controlled Spanish construction company Ferrovial and is facing a costly £14bn bill for building a third runway over one of the U.K.’s busiest motorways, the M25.
While it is the airport authorities who are purchasing the equipment, ultimately it is most likely to be passengers who end up footing the bill as higher airport charges will be passed on to the airlines and then customers. Airports around the world have been watching to see what Gatwick and Heathrow do: now, more will follow suit. But where does it stop? Will all airports around the U.K. follow the example of the country’s two largest airports?
Neither airport has confirmed what equipment it will be purchasing, but it has previously been reported that British police at Heathrow are to be armed with SkyWall 100 shoulder launched weapons that can track and bring a drone down safely. Elsewhere in the field, Citadel Defense Company makes drone detection and interference systems that can detect wifi and radio control signals while DJI AeroScope can detect a drone from from up to 20km away. Battelle’s existing DroneDefender V2 C-UAS device uses disruptive radio waves to jam a drone’s GPS system.
Part of the problem is that regulation has lagged behind the rapid advances in drone technology of the past few years. The U.K. government is consulting on its 2019 Drones bill, which will make registration of all drones compulsory. Other administrations including President Trump’s are moving to tighten anti-drone legislation. But critics say that anti-drone legislation is still moving too slowly and regulation only works for those people who play by the law. So it’s down to technology to protect us from the more harmful potential effects of drones in aviation.
The question for airport authorities around the world is not can we afford anti-drone equipment, but can we afford not to buy it?