Close on the heels of the pre-Christmas chaos caused by reports of multiple drone sightings at London’s second-largest airport Gatwick, Britain’s busiest airport Heathrow faced similar rogue drone sightings and was forced to suspend outbound flights for about an hour on Tuesday evening local time.
Police have confirmed a drone was spotted over Heathrow and said the military has been brought in to assist in the investigation. Flights have now resumed. Scotland Yard said it first received reports of a drone sighting over the vicinity of Heathrow Airport at 1705. The FlightRadar24 website recorded departures halting around 17:15 and resuming an hour later.
The military was deployed in response. Britain’s Transport minister Chris Grayling said the military would be deployed with counter-drone technology, saying, “I have already spoken to both the Home Secretary and Defence Secretary and the military are preparing to deploy the equipment used at Gatwick at Heathrow quickly should it prove necessary.”
Scotland Yard reported that police officers were among witnesses who saw the drone flown near the airport and confirmed they military was involved in their response.
Commander Stuart Cundy said, “We are carrying out extensive searches around the Heathrow area to identify any people who may be responsible for the operation of the drone. Following today’s sighting, military assistance has been implemented to support us, however, we will not be discussing in any further detail the range of tactics available to us as this would only serve to potentially undermine their effectiveness.”
A spokesman for Heathrow Airport confirmed they had stopped departures as a “precautionary measure” following the drone sightings around 6pm local-time, saying “We are working with Air Traffic Control and the Met Police, and have resumed departures out of Heathrow after a short suspension. We continue to work with the Met Police on reports of drones at Heathrow. We will continue to monitor this and apologise to anyone that were affected.” Inbound flights were not affected.
Flights at Heathrow are operating normally. Our focus is always the safety of our passengers and colleagues and we apologise to those passengers whose journeys have been unfairly affected this evening.
— Heathrow Airport (@HeathrowAirport) January 8, 2019
On Monday, the government had made announcements stating that police were to be handed extra powers to combat drones near airports, giving them power to land, seize and search the devices. The Home Office was due to begin testing and evaluating the use of counter-drone technology at airports and prisons. Police have already begun investigations.
Commander Cundy said: “I want to be clear that the illegal operation of drones at an airfield is extremely dangerous. Under the Aviation Security Act it is an offence to endanger the safety of an aircraft. Anyone found guilty of this offense could face a life sentence. We are deploying significant resources – both in terms of officers and equipment – to monitor the airspace around Heathrow and to quickly detect and disrupt any illegal drone activity; some of which are as a result of learning from the incidents at Gatwick.”
Cundy did not give specific details of the forces deployed and the Ministry of Defence only revealed that “specialist equipment” had been sent to Heathrow, west London, at the request of the police. Cundy added: “We are determined to identify anyone who may have been involved in today’s incident and I would urge anybody who may have information that could assist our investigation to call 101 quoting Heathrow drone incident.”
UK aviation minister Liz Sugg said that the Home Office will be able to “expedite detailed policy work” to develop means to allow expanded use of counter-drone technology which would detect drones flying around sensitive sites – airports among them – and help prevent a repeat of the Gatwick incident. These technologies include geo-fencing and electronic conspicuity. Additionally policy makers would work with manufactures to introduce new technologies which will help ensure drones are used in accordance with the law.
Frustrated passengers at the airport took to social media to share pictures and videos of the grounded flights. Passengers also reported seeing a police helicopter overhead. In the tweet, the user said: “On a plane waiting to take off at Heathrow and we are grounded as there is a “drone” flying over the airport. Police helicopter over the runway. Hope it is just a drone.”
Pablo Estrada, VP of Marketing at Dedrone said, “Counter-drone technology can alert an airport when a drone enters protected airspace and follow the drone’s flight path to locate and apprehend the pilot. Dedrone’s technology could provide situational awareness of the lower airspace and gives airports an opportunity to get ahead of the threat before it causes harm or disrupts operations.”
The area around airports where drones are banned from flying will also be extended, and from 30 November operators of drones between 250g and 20kg will need to be registered. UK cockpit union BALPA, has welcomed the planned extension to the exclusion zone insisting that the safety of aircraft and their occupants must be prioritised.
Hopefully with the tremendous efforts from security forces and authorities such incidents will be prevented or minimized in the future.