With an estimated £50-70 million in losses to airlines, as well as significant personal claims facing insurance companies, the financial impact of Gatwick Airport’s 33-hour closure shortly before Christmas 2018 – due to a series of drone scares – was significant.
Underpinning this all was the security threat that a rogue drone poses to an airplane, its crew and passengers – a challenge that airport operators are now tackling head-on as the number of privately-owned drones grows. According to the British Airline Pilots Association, there were 117 near-misses between planes and drones in 12 months to November 2018.
Using Falcon Shield at Gatwick
To get Gatwick back to full operation in December 2018, the UK-produced counter-drone system ‘Falcon Shield’ – which accurately detects, tracks, identifies, geo-locates and mitigates rogue drone threats – was deployed by the Royal Air Force (RAF) to confirm the absence of drones and allow air operations to resume unhindered.
On the evening of 20 December, Leonardo’s Falcon Shield was taken to Gatwick, deployed and operated by the RAF. The system’s integral elements include the Nerio ULR thermal imaging equipment (designed and manufactured by Leonardo in Basildon and Southampton) and the Skyperion ES system (supplied by Lincolnshire-based Metis Aerospace).
By operating the Leonardo system, the RAF confirmed to Gatwick Airport operating authorities the absence of any ‘hostile or malicious’ drone activity. From the point at which Falcon Shield was deployed and operating, the RAF was able to report an absence of drones, enabling the airport to continue or resume operations. Gatwick, in conjunction with Sussex Police, launched a number of ‘friendly drone test sorties’ during 21-23 December, all of which were detected and reported on by the Falcon Shield system. Throughout the period 21-24 December, Falcon Shield continued to provide assurance to the airport authorities that aircraft could safely take off and land.
Investment in Airport Operations
Although the company was not under contract at the time of the Gatwick incident, Leonardo continued providing direct support relating to the elements of the Falcon Shield system being operated by the RAF Regiment/Air Command.
The company invests around 10% of turnover in Research and Development, and, given the potential operational threat to airports and other critical national infrastructure, was keen to continue investment into the development of an effective deployable system along with its comprehensive range of solutions for airport operators covering Air Traffic Management, Baggage Handling and Cyber Security.
Falcon Shield was subsequently deployed by the RAF following a further drone incident at Heathrow Airport on 8 January 2019; for the second time in less than a month, the RAF was able to provide assurance to the Airport Operators of the absence of drones by using Falcon Shield's detect function to its full potential.