Airports worldwide still face complex and costly challenges in protecting their operations from the threat of disruption from drone flights, and there remains no “silver bullet” solution to the problems, according to experts addressing the Drone Disruption Summit held in London on October 15. Delegates heard how major international gateways like London Gatwick and Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly have made multimillion-dollar investments over the last 12 months that have required intense follow-on work to ensure effective integration of detection and protection systems with overall airport operations.
In its immediate response to the damaging four-day closure of London Gatwick from December 19 to 22, 2018, the privately owned airport spent at least $5 million rapidly deploying hardware. The equipment includes the DJI AeroScope G16 radio frequency detection system, a Metis Skyperion passive RF signal spectrum analyzer, the Chess Dynamics AUDS multi-layered system combining radar, electro-optical camera, thermal imaging, and signal jamming, as well as the Skywall net-projector kinetic-attack system to block drone incursions.
According to Damien Trower, London Gatwick Airport’s head of security, one of the main lessons learned centered on the need to consider how the new protection technology will safely and effectively integrate with existing airport systems. His team initially purchased a system that conflicted with part of Gatwick’s ground control radar network. He also advised airport managers to develop strong working relationships with key agencies such as air traffic management providers, the police, and the military. He also warned against “snake oil salesmen” offering still-unproven protection technology.
The Gatwick situation proved to be a wakeup call for international airports worldwide when it became clear that protest groups were deliberately flying drones in an effort to seriously disrupt operations. Trower said that, at the time, UK government agencies had not advocated investments in new technology on the grounds that experts considered no system mature enough. In his view, the thinking has now changed; while no system alone can give the high level of protection that an airport might desire, if authorities deploy a combination of technologies intelligently, they can provide effective protection. He also counseled that leasing technology, rather than buying it, can ensure that combinations of hardware do not become redundant.
“This is an arms race that will never end, and we will have to test and review our assumptions over and over,” he told the Drone Disruption Summit, organized by Kisaco Research.
After seeing how effectively Royal Air Force air defense specialists provided support during the incident—even though they were using outdated equipment—Gatwick has begun actively recruiting former military specialists to strengthen the human element in its drone defenses.
“Everything changed after the Gatwick incident because this means someone had decided to stop the airport [from operating],” said Charles Telitsine, project director with France’s Aéroports de Paris (ADP) group. The case prompted ADP, which runs France’s main gateways as well as multiple airports worldwide, to conduct an extensive assessment of security and safety requirements.
At Paris Charles De Gaulle and Orly airports, ADP has invested heavily in sophisticated multi-sensor networks, including 3D holographic radar, high-definition long-range cameras, and radio frequency units. Telitsine advised airport managers to conduct extensive site surveys of their facilities to ensure they can maximize the detection capability of the expensive systems.
ADP also has invested in developing its own software for integrating the various bits of equipment to allow for greater flexibility as technology evolves. The effort includes the application of artificial intelligence to support the fusion of data from multiple sensors.
ADP sees unmanned aircraft as an opportunity as well as a threat. It has become actively involved in developing so-called vertiports to prepare for commercial operations by new eVTOL aircraft in urban areas. It plans to be ready to support limited-scale operations when the French capital hosts the 2024 Olympic Games.