Heathrow may have no answer for mass drone protest, says expert

Airport security chiefs facing a drone protest by climate activists at Heathrow could struggle against a sustained attack, an expert has said.

Professor David Dunn, who recently spoke at Parliament about drone threats, said detaining suspects before a demonstration is able to take place could be the most effective measure.

Heathrow has military grade anti-drone technology, but that would be seriously tested if the airport is bombarded with a stream of devices in “waves”, he said.

Prof Dunn, a professor in international politics at the University of Birmingham, likened the threat by Extinction Rebellion to the drone incident at Gatwick Airport in December which affected roughly 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights.

“Gatwick was probably two drones. But the underlying question is: What do you do if you have multiple drones, multiple directions, multiple wave incursions? They have not really got an answer for that,” he said.

“It depends how many there were, how coordinated they were and it would require a major police operation.”

The academic, who addressed an All Party Parliamentary Group on Armed Drones event in May, said any policing operation would be “very expensive and require a lot of manpower”.

Heathrow’s location inside the M25 also makes unleashing drones easier for activists, who could use gardens or car boots as launch pads, he said.

Flights would likely be halted if drones were spotted anywhere on flight paths or inside the perimeter of the airport.

Heathrow drone disruption
Heathrow drone disruption

“Within five minutes they could be inside the operation space,” said Prof Dunn. “That would cause them to halt.

“It may be the case that the people are rounded up beforehand to stop this from happening. That might be the most effective way to deal with this.”

The technology used to stop or prevent drones flying in certain areas can also affect other equipment.

Shotguns and nets can also be used to stop drones but authorities face a “cat and mouse” scenario with culprits, Prof Dunn said.

He also pointed out the dangers of flying drones so close to planes over London.

“Each of these things can have up to 800 people on board and it’s possible these things can collide and if that comes down in the middle of London the impact could be multiplied,” he said.

Prof Dunn also pointed out the wider implications of a shutdown at one of Britain’s busiest airports.

“It affects the whole ecosystem of air transport,” he said, pointing out that the incident at Gatwick Airport caused Europe-wide disruption.

A Heathrow spokesperson said the airport works closely with the Government and Metropolitan Police to mitigate drone threats, but could not comment further “in the interests of safety”.