Drones and Airports

Jan 11, 2019

This week Charlie shares his thoughts on the recent drone incidents at Heathrow and Gatwick airport.

Following the incident at Heathrow Airport on Tuesday, with one of the runways having to close, and with the recent shut down at Gatwick Airport I thought I would write this week’s bulletin on drones. When the shutdown of Gatwick occurred on the 19 – 21 December I posted three observations on the incident onto LinkedIn, and so, this week’s bulletin is going to be based around the replies and discussions on the post.

The three thoughts I posted on LinkedIn were:

1. Known risk – I wonder if they had a multi-agency plan and exercised it?
2. Why leave people stuck on planes for hours – lack of a plan to get them to airport?
3. There will be copycats, all airports need to ensure that they are ready.

The first discussion was on hindsight, and whether the event was foreseeable, and the airport should have anticipated the drone event. There was roughly an even split on whether the event was foreseeable, with some comments discussing how drones have often been used for nefarious purposes before, such as to take drugs into prisons, by ISIS as a method used to drop grenades and munitions, and for attempted assassinations, such as the Caracas attack where two drones detonated explosives near Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela. If terrorists have used drones as weapons before and airport attacks generate a large amount of media coverage, it was obvious that a drone attack on an airport was inevitable. Whilst this may be true, Mark Armour suggested that “our profession has a tendency to overly-criticize institutions after something goes wrong”. Kev Brear also commented that “hindsight bias often appears in risk management discussions and I submit that this incident has the potential to be coloured by that aspect”. My personal opinion is that this was a foreseeable threat, but I can admit that the answer to the threat was more difficult.

A few people on the post put forward the idea of shooting down the drone with a rifle or shotgun, chasing it with a helicopter trailing a net, installing software in the drone similar to that of a mobile phone, which enables the owner to be identified or alternatively, using geofencing to prevent the drone flying into a restricted area. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution, or I suspect Gatwick would have introduced this already. There were a lot of reasons given as to why some of these ideas wouldn’t work. Drones are small and hard to shoot down, plus there is the danger of where the bullet might land, nets and helicopters were rejected as they could get out of hand and drones can be made by sourcing individual parts, buying them second hand or the software can be hacked to overrule the geofencing. As a result, there seemed to be no consensus on how to mitigate the threat. The newspapers were rather vague about the systems that the police and the army were using to detect and then jam the signal to the drone, to try and prevent any further events. I also suspect that for Heathrow they may have ordered a similar system to Gatwick, but because of the Christmas period and perhaps as these systems are not available off the shelf, their system hadn’t arrived before the incident.

I personally don’t think that airports have their response and communications plans working adequately for incidents where flights cannot take off or land. I can understand that it is difficult to communicate accurate information to airport customers when you don’t know how long the delay is going to be, when there are multiple airlines involved and the message needs to be repeated frequently for the public. This happens often enough for airports to improve their delivery of these updates to customers. I also think that their ability to look after major delays is poor, especially when they have had a reasonable amount of practice. Lessons learned from the British Airways IT outage last year should have meant that in this instance the airport should have been able to provide a place of comfort for stranded overnight passengers, and to avoid leaving passengers sat for hours on planes.

I also think the first response to a new hazard is usually overcautious. When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in April 2010, 20 countries closed their airspace due to the ash cloud, as it was known there was a risk that ingestion of ash into airplane engines can shut down the engine. It was not known during this incident how the different concentrations of ash affected engines, and what was a safe limit for planes to fly through. If they had known this information less of the airspace would have been closed. In the same way, I suspect that Heathrow had a more efficient identification and reporting system, and perhaps had done further investigation as to where exactly a drone had to be to pose a risk to the airport, meaning they were able to close only one runway and for a shorter time than at Gatwick.

The events at Heathrow make the last thought very timely, there was, as I predicted, a further event and there is likely to be further drone closedowns at airports in the future. The big airports can afford the fancy and I suspect, very expensive anti-drone systems but will the smaller airports be able to afford them? How an under £1,000 drone can close down a major airport for hours, make international news and with the chance of being caught being fairly small (to date!), as shown by the Gatwick event, will not be lost on potential terrorists looking to practice asymmetric warfare and protest groups protesting about environmental issues, such as the third runway at Heathrow.

As I often say in this bulletin, one of the roles of the business continuity manager is to horizon scan for new threats and as drones are a new threat, you should think through whether they can threaten your organisation. If drones are a threat and you don’t have the money to be able to afford an anti-drone system, then consider developing and exercise a response plan. If you can’t stop a threat, then you can go a long way to mitigating it by reducing the impact, through a well-practiced response and recovery plan.

If you want to better understand the threat from drones and how they were used by the Islamic state, this link goes through to a very interesting paper on the subject: https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2018/07/Islamic-State-and-Drones-Release-Version.pdf

The LinkedIn post can be read here: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6481445279672389632

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