Climate activists plan to block London Heathrow using drones - Can their plan work?

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A group of activists known as “Heathrow Pause” announced a plan to use drones to force massive flights cancellations at UK’s busiest airport. The action should start on the 13th of September and last for days.

Will drones shut down London Heathrow?

On the base of the plans posted on the group’s website, I think this plan will not work. There will be arrests and media attention but no flight disruption. Let’s go through the plan and see what to expect but also what could lead to real disruptions.

Note: the point is not to discuss the cause behind the action but to look at it from an ATC and airport operations point if view.

The Heathrow Pause group is non-violent and wants the action to be safe. To achieve this, their plan bases on a loophole and not on creating a real threat...

The current safety processes at Heathrow impose to stop flights if drones are flying within a 5km zone around the airport. Whatever the location, altitude and type of drone. The group plans to fly toy drones at head level (6 feet) within this area. They will inform the authorities to make the flights “known”. They assume that the 5 km rule will be applied on an automatic basis and that traffic will be suspended.

The plan also include a hotline with the airport authorities and warnings one hour before the flights. The pilots will “wait peacefully” for arrest.

While I can understand the hope that an organization like Heathrow will strictly apply processes, I don’t think this will happen. Pilots will likely be arrested for formally breaking the rules but I honestly can’t imagine an OPS supervisor decide to close the airport because of a drone hovering at 1m80 above ground in a park 4 kilometers away. Even if the rule says so.

Will the drones be detected?

In light of the recent events at Gatwick, it is interesting to look at this plan from a technical point of view.

Drone detection systems combine multiple technologies to detect and classify drones. At the range and altitude planned by the activists of Heathrow Pause, radar detection is not an option. Cameras are not usable either.

As the drones are piloted, RF signal detection is the sole option to detect the drones. RF detection also makes possible to locate the pilot. If the drones would be flying autonomously and without sending video feeds or telemetry, RF would be inefficient too.

Could drones block an airport?

Is it possible to use drones to create a threat such that the airport must be closed? It happened in Gatwick and in multiple other cases around the world too.

Bigger drones, closer to the airport can become a real threat and require serious countermeasures. On the other hand, drones closer to the flight paths are easier to detect than drones hovering 1m80 above ground far away. This can be done using a mix of specific radar sensors and cameras.

Countermeasures also exist in various forms, from telemetry or GPS jammers to nets and laser cannons. The operation of countermeasures is usually a police tasks and airport operators are not allowed to use them themselves..

Are airports ready? The rush for drone detection systems is in full swing but for many airports are still exposed. I don't expect drone detection to be used on the 13th as by design the plan is really not posing any threat and is relying on a process loophole and not on drones anywhere close to the airport.


About the author

Vincent Lambercy is a freelance Air Traffic Management consultant with over 19 years of international experience in technical, project management and sales roles with various organisations. He is the CEO and founder of FoxATM and the editor of the FoxATM Market Radar where weekly reviews of the ATM, UTM and airport industries are published. Subscribe to the newsletter to never miss an update.