Heathrow Airport deploys new anti-drone technology to detect threats

LONDON: London’s Heathrow airport has deployed a system designed to block drones entering its airspace following a string of recent attempts that threatened Europe’s busiest travel hub.

The airport, classified as a flight restriction zone by authorities, is now using a product manufactured by France’s Thales SA to detect and identify drones.

The French company declined Tuesday to detail the contract’s value or the precise specification being used at Heathrow.

Illegal drones are a growing problem for airports, utilities and factories. While their use is often meant to be disruptive — when used for example by activists — or for surveillance, they have recently been used in destructive attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Companies like Thales have sought to increase their use beyond military solutions to seize market opportunities.

Heathrow chose a holographic radar system developed by Aveillant Ltd, a Cambridge, England company acquired by Thales in 2017. Its technology is now part of the French defence contractor’s anti-drone solution, EagleShield.

The radar system is also used at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. It can detect drones as far as 5km away in all directions, according to Aveillant’s website. Appropriate countermeasures can then be deployed.

Representatives for Thales wouldn’t say what Heathrow planned to use as a countermeasure, but said drone-disabling technology was not part of its contract with the airport. A spokesman for Heathrow declined to comment.

Away from transit hubs, common solutions include the use of radio waves to jam the signal used by a pilot to control a drone, or take over control of the unit. Other methods include dispatching eagles or giant nets to pull craft out of the sky.

In September, police in London arrested two people outside the perimeter of Heathrow after climate protesters attempted to close it with illegal drone flights.

Campaigners said at least one craft was successfully launched, though departures and arrivals did continue.

In December 2018, flights at Gatwick airport were halted for more than 24 hours during pre-Christmas high season following reports of drone sightings close to its runway.