Airlines and Airports Plan For Widespread Drone Disruption

 - October 15, 2019, 8:26 AM
Protest groups plan to deliberately fly drones around Gatwick Airport to disrupt airline operations.

UK airlines, airports, and air traffic management providers are planning for possible widespread disruption to flights caused by deliberate drone incursions conducted by political protest groups. The anticipated threats include the worldwide demonstrations by the Extinction Rebellion environmental action network, which this week included an activist gluing himself to an airliner parked at London City Airport.

Speaking at the Drone Disruption Summit on Tuesday, EasyJet operations manager Douglas Moule explained that the UK’s Industry Resilience Group is considering how to respond to a situation in which activists deliberately fly drones around multiple airports. “There are some clever people at Extinction Rebellion, and the worst-case scenario is that they put a drone up at [London] Gatwick for 30 minutes, causing flights to divert, and then follow up with drones to disrupt flights into the diversion airports,” the A320 captain said. “We’ll have carnage then and it could clear the skies as happened during [the] 9/11 [terrorist attacks]. In that situation, it may be safer to keep flying into known drone activity, but we’ve got to decide how we would communicate that to pilots.”

Moule said that in response to the Extinction Rebellion protests, airline pilots have begun carrying additional fuel for possible diversions. As he spoke, Extinction Rebellion protestors continued to defy a ban on all demonstrations within London issued by police on Monday evening. The group has previously threatened to use drones to disrupt flights at London Heathrow Airport. The Drone Disruption Summit hosted aviation leaders from around the world, including officials from Hong Kong, where long-running political protests have caused severe disruption at the main airport.

The UK Industry Resilience Group is working to standardize the responses to drone threats by pilots, air traffic controllers, and airport personnel. The group met with the UK Civil Aviation Authority on October 14 to develop plans for an airline risk-assessment model that would include color-coded “red-green-amber” alerts to give pilots a clearer indication of real-time threats and response methods.

EasyJet safety manager Brendan Booth told the Drone Disruption Summit that engine and airframe manufacturers must initiate more coordinated action in terms of understanding and protecting against the damage drones can do. Moule suggested that it might make sense to start “firing drones into aircraft engines” as part of the certification process, mirroring the risk-assessment work done for bird strikes.

Much of the agenda for Kisaco Research’s Drone Disruption Summit focused on lessons learned from the four-day closure of London Gatwick Airport from December 19 to 22, 2019, after repeated drone incursions. Officials from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that, under the 2018 Preventing Emerging Threats Act, it will lead an effort to develop protection against the so-called “Gatwick on the Potomac Scenario” in which major U.S. airports might face similar disruption.

In the U.S., legal structures continue to complicate the overall response to drone threats. For instance, only certain federal agencies legally may use radio frequency identification and jamming systems already under development by privately-owned major airports in Europe, such as Gatwick.

A concept for operations for dealing with drone threats has been in the works since last year’s Gatwick situation, with input from multiple federal agencies and industry bodies such as the Airport Council International. The U.S. Congress has been pressing for clarification and possible changes to laws governing the government’s apparently fragmented response process.