Over the past four years there has been an enhanced emphasis on detecting, monitoring and countering unauthorised drone activity near airports and/or in close proximity to civilian aircraft inflight. According to data released by the United Kingdom (UK) Airprox Board, there were just six emergency situations involving small commercial drones and civilian aircraft in 2014 and only 29 during 2015. However, those numbers increased exponentially to 71 such incidents in 2016, 93 in 2017 and 132 during 2018. In similar fashion, the United States (US) Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documented just 57 drone sightings near airports or civilian aircraft inflight during 2014. However, the FAA reported 1,208 incidents in 2015, 1,762 in 2016 and 2,124 in 2017. Our own comprehensive analysis of publicly available data has identified over 7,000 nefarious drone incidents worldwide in just the past decade. Since November 2017, there have been multiple instances where drones have collided with civilian aircraft:
- 12 December 2018: Commercial passenger jet collided with a drone while on approach to Tijuana International Airport (MMTJ/TIJ) in Mexico.
- 12 October 2018: Commercial passenger flight was struck by a drone while inbound to Jean Lesage International Airport (CYQB/YQB) in Quebec City, Canada.
- 22 December 2017: Commercial passenger jet suffered a collision with a drone while on approach to Jorge Newbery Airport (SABE/AEP) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
- 11 November 2017: Commercial jet hit a drone while landing at Jorge Newbery Airport.
Drone Sightings near Airports in the London, UK Area during 2017-2018
Case Study: London Gatwick Airport, December 2018
From 19-21 December 2018, a series of unlawful drone incidents occurred near London Gatwick Airport (EGKK/LGW). The airport experienced a series of multi-hour closures over the three-day period as a result of the nefarious drone activity. Hundreds of arriving flights were delayed, cancelled or diverted to other airports, mainly in the London area but also elsewhere in the UK and nearby countries. Similarly, hundreds of departing flights were cancelled or severely delayed. A small contingent of UK military forces was deployed to the airport during late December 2018 to assist in interdicting the drone activity, highlighting the severity of the event.
The police and aviation officials have indicated that the drone incidents were a deliberate attempt to disrupt flight operations at the airport. Police have stated that there is no information to suggest that the activity was terrorism-related, but that they had no intelligence indicating such an incident would occur. On a more concerning note, the likely perpetrators remain unknown at this time. Specific information on potential suspects and/or their motivations has not been publicly released by the police to date and the investigation into the incidents by the authorities remains ongoing.
The police have announced that they had recovered two drones along the airport perimeter during their investigation; however, neither was involved in the 19-21 December incidents at the installation. The police are also reportedly considering a theory that no nefarious drone activity occurred and that the reported sightings were a case of mistaken identification. However, this suggestion is by no means the most likely scenario and the police continue to explore a variety of theories as to what occurred at the airport. The recovery of the two drones along the perimeter illustrates that the hazard of errant drone activity near airports in the UK is real and must be evaluated properly by aviation operators. Secondly, even the remote potential that no drone activity occurred at London Gatwick Airport, but that a series of mistaken sightings caused severe and prolonged flight schedule disruption, highlights the complexity of the issue at hand. Aviation operators should take this information into account during their flight-planning process and while identifying alternate airport and divert options within the UK.
Conclusion & Advice
Governments have taken notice of the threat posed by drones and enacted limited measures to protect public safety in response, primarily due to concerns related to terrorism. However, government regulations continue to lag behind the development of technology in implementing effective protocols for deterring unlawful drone use. As such, the risk of nefarious drone activity extends beyond the threat of terrorism and into the realm of business continuity, with the aviation sector being acutely affected. We advise aviation operators to conduct the following actions:
- Monitor government advisories as well as trends in terrorism, crime, sabotage and industrial espionage activities that include the employment and proliferation of drones;
- Conduct threat assessments of nefarious drone
capability and intent for operating locations based on the potential risk to
assets, facilities, equipment and personnel:
- Tracking done activity via commercially available technology within a defined operating radius for a predetermined time period;
- Acquisition and installation of drone detection and monitoring technology at operating locations, optimised from the results of the threat assessment;
- Evaluating the use of non-kinetic counter-drone technology to further mitigate the exposure of facilities, equipment and personnel to nefarious drone activity.
- Revise internal mechanisms for suspicious activity, safety and security reporting. Revisions typically account for drone sightings as part of wider corporate security and risk management strategies to protect facilities, equipment and personnel;
- Develop procedures for alerting personnel to a nefarious drone event similar to an “Active Shooter” notification. Ensure Emergency Response Plans and Communications Plans are up-to-date to enhance continuity during times of crisis;
- Following any nefarious drone incident, investigate the background of the event and implement mechanisms for sharing the findings with appropriate authorities and relevant industry bodies.
About the Author
Matthew Borie has 12 years of aviation security and intelligence experience in the public and private sectors. Matthew is currently the Head of Analysis at Osprey Flight Solutions. Previously, Matthew worked as an intelligence analyst at the MedAire & Control Risks Aviation Security Center. Prior to that, he completed an eight-year enlistment in the US Air Force, serving as an Operations Intelligence Craftsman. During his Air Force career, Matthew provided intelligence support to fighter aircraft operations, including a deployment to a location in Southeast Asia; he also completed deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Matthew holds Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees in Intelligence Studies from American Military University (AMU) and, in August 2015, completed a Master’s Degree in National Security Studies from AMU, followed by a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism Studies in December 2017.