UK airports, law enforcement, legislators and the public have been watching and waiting to if and how demonstrators will breach Heathrow’s airspace, curious to witness a modern form of protesting unfold. Protesters have been arrested, and despite the news coverage and spectacle occurring outside the airport property, Heathrow Airport has maintained normal operations.

Regardless of the outcome of these events, drones near airports are a threat. However, not all airports will receive a schedule of when and where airspace intrusions may occur. Whether the threats from activists are real or a bluff, what’s certain are that the consequences of a shutdown are established, costly and preventable. Airport managers must be proactive in protecting their operations from such threats, whether they are perceived or real.  

Drone detection technology provides unrefuted evidence of the presence of drones at airports. Dedrone has worked with UK and other international airports to develop security programs that protect their operations and airspace from any interruptions. Airports that incorporate Dedrone’s detection technology into their security ecosystem can then develop a data-driven airspace security program, and understand and directly address the vulnerabilities in their airspace.

With a baseline of drone activity data, airports can create operating procedures, such as defining the circumstances to approach pilots, shut down runways, or defend themselves against a drone threat. From there, evidence of drone intrusions can be used against those who breach restricted airspace, opening new opportunities to hold unlawful pilots accountable for any of the consequences of their actions.

Drones at airports may make for a catchy headline, but only a small portion of such events have been officially confirmed to be as a result of a drone breach. While it may be possible for an eyewitness or passenger pilot to say a moving object in the air is a drone, this method of detection is unreliable and limited in scope. The only way that airports may be able to detect and classify drones reliably is through technology.

News reports that jamming technology may have been used at Heathrow to prevent drones from entering restricted airspace. In principal, the police may have deployed some form of signal jammer, but authorization for such technology is limited in scope and generally unavailable for use by airports. Communication systems such as Wi-Fi, GPS and Satellite navigation are critical to an airport, and may also rely on the same frequencies as drones. Only proactive detection systems, such as the Dedrone RF-100, can be immediately integrated into any security ecosystem, and will not interfere with airport communication systems.

Airports like Heathrow have been preparing for such an incursion by incorporating passive mitigation tactics, such as building out their RF-based drone detection systems, and apprehending the protesters ahead of their demonstration, and actively monitoring their skies for any disruptions. However, not all cases of drone incursions at airports will have weeks or months of advance planning.

The Heathrow protesters set a new precedent on how airports must respond to drone threats. As more drones come to market, so will new applications for use and misuse. The Economist outlines in their article, “Drones piloted by climate-change activists target Heathrow,” that our airports may be in the midst of an airspace security crisis. “It used to take some effort to shut down an airport,” the article states. “No more. Just as modern-day organisers of a coup may be better off seizing a popular Instagram account than the national broadcaster, so too have the barriers to entry collapsed for shutting down the busiest airport in Europe.” The concept of using drones to advance political or social motives are just beginning, with other recent examples including how Greenpeace used a drone to draw attention to the security vulnerabilities at nuclear power plants.

The lag to adopt drone detection technology at airports will only become increasingly more dangerous as more incidents occur. Drones are here to stay, and as seen with the Heathrow Airport protest and recent shutdowns around the world, they will continue to threaten airport operations, leaving passengers frustrated and airlines blocked out of safe and clear airspace to fly. Drone activity data must be available for all airports to operate and defend themselves against drone intrusions.

Dedrone References and Resources:

Overview of Dedrone at Airports

Dedrone Airport Airspace Security Report

US Airports Left Without Defense Against Drone Incursions as they Await FAA Permissions for Counterdrone Technology Integration

Dedrone Drone Incident Center

Susan Friedberg

About the author

Susan is the Director of Communications at Dedrone and has researched, developed, and led the conversation on drones, counter-drone technology, and airspace security since 2016.

Susan Friedberg

Originally published Sep 13, 2019, updated Dec 4, 2023