A recent UK Airprox Board (UKAB) report for May 2023 provided information on an April 8, 2023, suspected drone sighting on the approach to London Heathrow Runway 09L. The pilot of an Airbus 320 aircraft reported a drone sighting at 3,000 feet. The report described the drone as a “round shaped drone with purple/turquoise colour.” The drone was described as narrowly missing the plane when it “flew under the left wing, only a few meters from the engine.”

The UKAB report also noted the pilots of the two aircraft before the Airbus 320 had also reported the same suspected drone. The controller considered these sightings an imminent danger to aircraft and assessed the situation as high-risk. Consequently, the controller promptly ceased all arrivals on Runway 09L and effectively coordinated the transition to Runway 09R to ensure the safety of incoming aircraft.

The UKAB members collectively represent a team of exceptionally skilled professionals possessing extensive expertise in various Air Traffic Control disciplines. Their diverse backgrounds encompass firsthand experience in civil and military aviation sectors, including Commercial Air Transport (CAT) and General Aviation (GA) across rotary, fixed-wing, and glider flying. Additionally, their knowledge extends to military flying conducted by the Royal Navy, Army, Royal Air Force, and UK-based United States Air Force aircraft. This wealth of practical knowledge enables the Board Members to provide valuable insights and guidance in their respective roles.

The UK Airprox Board (UKAB) is entrusted with several key responsibilities, including:

  1. Conducting impartial, professional, and timely assessments of all reported Airprox incidents within UK airspace, ensuring the highest standards of risk evaluation and analysis.
  2. Issuing Safety Recommendations, where appropriate, to mitigate the likelihood of similar Airprox incidents occurring in the future.
  3. Disseminating formal Reports detailing the findings of Airprox assessments to a broad audience across the civil and military aviation sectors, including flying operation centers and air traffic control units.
  4. Delivering presentations on the role and activities of the UKAB to various audiences within the civil and military aviation communities, as well as influential groups associated with the aviation sector.
  5. Identifying, analyzing, and promptly notifying the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) about the primary contributing factors observed in Airprox incidents.

Several media outlets have reported that the A320 aircraft noted in the report was a Finnair flight from Rome to London. According to the summary report by NATS Safety Investigations, an analysis of the radar data conducted during the investigation revealed no signs of any primary or secondary contacts visible on the radar at the approximate time of the events under review.

The report stated, “In the Board’s opinion, the reported altitude and/or description of the object were sufficient to indicate that it could have been a drone.”

Easy-to-fly drones, the lack of knowledge of many new hobby drone pilots, and an increasingly busy and complex airspace that includes both crewed and uncrewed aircraft have resulted in several high-profile drone incidents.

Most notable is the Gatwick incident from December 2018. Gatwick was shut down for more than a day after several sightings in the vicinity of the airport by police officers or airport workers. More than 120,000 passengers were affected by delays and cancellations due to suspected drones being repeatedly flown over Gatwick Airport. All flights were grounded for at least 33 hours before the Christmas getaway.

Earlier this year, a suspected drone near Gatwick disrupted flights for over 30 minutes. Some observers believe the drone may have been mistaken for mylar balloons observed around the same time as the suspected drone.

The United States has also begun to have its share of drone-airport issues. In June, air traffic at the Pittsburgh International Airport was briefly halted due to the sighting of a drone. In July of last year, air traffic at Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan National Airport was shut down for about 45 minutes when a drone was reported nearby.

In July 2022, the Department of Homeland Security informed Congress that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had reported approximately 2,000 drone sightings near airports in the United States since 2021, “including incursions at major airports nearly every day. The most serious drone incidents force pilots to take evasive action during takeoff and landing to avoid potentially fatal collisions.”

Want to Learn More About Drones and Airports?

Earlier this summer, Three Case Studies on Small Uncrewed Aerial Systems Near Midair Collisions with Aircraft: An Evidence-Based Approach for Using Objective Uncrewed Aerial Systems Detection Technology was released. This study aimed to analyze data from a DJI Aeroscope sensor and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)/Mode S messages collected over 36 months near a significant U.S. airport. This data provides factual information about the interaction between small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) and aircraft within the airport’s airspace. The study presents three Near-Mid Air Collision (NMAC) case studies based on different mission profiles: (a) involving commercial air carriers, (b) involving general aviation (GA) aircraft, and (c) involving helicopters. Through these case studies, the study aims to shed light on the dynamics and potential risks associated with sUAS and aircraft operations near the airport.

Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) Traffic Analysis Initial Annual Report  provides the Initial Annual Report for the sUAS Traffic Analysis report for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  The purpose of this report is to inform the FAA in four critical areas: (1) identify, assess, and monitor for sUAS safety hazards; (2) determine the effectiveness of existing sUAS regulations; (3) accurately forecast sUAS traffic levels; and (4) aid in identifying and assessing future aviation risk. The research data was collected by partnering with two companies that deployed 166 UAS detection sensors across 64 geographical areas.

The accurate visual detection of drones from the ground and the cockpit of a fast-moving aircraft can often be extremely challenging. Seeing the Threat: Pilot Visual Detection of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Visual Meteorological Conditions is a paper that aimed to determine the average visibility distance of small UAS systems (sUAS) for pilots flying general aviation aircraft under visual meteorological conditions (VMC) and being alerted to the presence of UAS. The study evaluated the average visibility distance of various sUAS platforms using a predefined set of UAS convergence conditions.

Pilot Visual Detection of Small Unmanned Aircraft on Final Approach during Nighttime Conditions is a study to evaluate the effectiveness of in-flight pilot visual detection of small UAS platforms encountered during nighttime visual meteorological conditions (VMC) during the approach to landing phase of flight.

Airport Airspace Awareness and Protection Resources

Drone Incident Management at Aerodromes was published on March 8th, 2021, by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). This manual addresses unauthorized drone flights in the vicinity of airports. The purpose of this manual is to assist European aerodrome operators, air navigation service providers (ANSPs), and air operators in their endeavors to address and minimize unauthorized drone activities.

The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) Drone Countermeasure Exercise Report is a collaboration with the Norwegian Police.  In September 2021, at the Oslo Gardermoen Airport, personnel from law enforcement, industry, and academia gathered for a three-day exercise to evaluate a wide variety of Counter-UAS systems in an active airport environment. This report details the project, findings, and recommendations.

A Methodological Framework for the Risk Assessment of Drone Intrusions in Airports–  This research introduces a methodological framework for assessing the risks associated with drone intrusions in airports. The framework considers the unique features of drone intrusions, airport characteristics, and ongoing operations, considering both safety and security.

Defending Airports from UAS: A Survey on Cyber-Attacks and Counter Drone Sensing Technologies provides the reader with a survey of previous airport-related drone incidents, a literature review of drone detection and mitigation technology, an analysis of the strengths and limitations of C-UAS detection and mitigation technologies; a discussion of three possible airport attack scenarios by a drone and protection plans for each; and considerations for airport stakeholders to consider when deploying C-UAS technology in the airport context.

Post Image- A Finnair A320 Takes off from Helsinki (Image Credit: Adobe Stock by Markus Mainka)