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2020 has been a hard year for airports. 

The restrictions of the COVID-19 crisis have reduced flight activity to an all-time low. At the same time, drone activity has increased, as hobbyists have used the opportunity to capture aerial shots of eerily barren landmarks, including restricted airspaces.

However, while runways have been quieter than normal this year, not all airlines halted activity. Airports have been staying operational, with stretched resources. And with increased numbers of drones in the sky, it’s no surprise that this year has seen some severe disruptions and perilously close calls. Here are some of the most significant drone incidents of 2020.

1. Drone Troubles for Gatwick – Again

In 2018, a drone sighting infamously brought Gatwick to a standstill for over 30 hours, resulting in hundreds of cancelled flights. Just 15 months later, the airport suffered yet another drone incident.

A Boeing 747 carrying 455 passengers almost collided with a drone just one minute after take-off. The drone was spotted through a cabin window by a flight attendant, who happened to be a former drone operator. They estimated that it was flying around 300ft away from the plane, but investigators suspect it may have been closer than that – it was close enough to identify the make of the drone from inside the cabin.

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2. One of the UK’s Closest Near-Misses Occurs at Manchester Airport

On a September afternoon, an EasyJet flight to Athens carrying 186 passengers had just taken off from Manchester Airport. Suddenly, both of its pilots saw a large, blue object weighing at least 10kgs fly right past the windshield.

The illegally piloted drone came within three feet of collision and could have caused critical damage if it had hit the aircraft. According to the UK Airprox board, this was a Category A incident, which indicates a serious risk of collision and is the most dangerous rating possible. It was one of the closest recorded near misses with a drone in the UK.

3. Frankfurt Airport Disrupted by Drone Sighting

One of Europe’s busiest airports was shut down for almost two hours in March, after a drone was spotted nearby. Several flights had to be delayed or re-routed while police searched the area looking for the drone.

Normal operations swiftly resumed, but flight data suggested that at least 41% of flights from Frankfurt were cancelled and 28% were delayed because of the incident. It just goes to show, without the ability to identify targets fast and track them accurately, one drone can cause an airport a lot of hassle and pain.

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4. Latvian Drone Goes Rogue, Forcing Local Airspace to Shut Down

A Latvian UAV manufacturer was piloting an experimental military-grade drone that could fly over 40mph. It was only supposed to be a test flight, but things went horribly wrong when they lost control of the drone – and then lost the drone itself.

Filled with enough fuel to fly for nearly four days, the drone went AWOL across the skies of Latvia, forcing the Civil Aviation Agency to close the airspace over Riga Airport. As drones start being able to fly faster and for longer distances, similar incidents involving missing drones may well become more common.


5. Drone Almost Takes Out Light Aircraft in Perth Airport, Scotland

The pilots of a light aircraft narrowly managed to avoid hitting a drone in a near-miss incident just outside Perth. Local police said that had a collision occurred, “both people on board would have been in danger of serious injury.”

The drone’s flight into the restricted airspace was described as “irresponsible to the extreme” and sparked calls for tougher penalties for reckless drone operators. “We support the views of the UK government, the Civil Aviation Authority and police that penalties should be increased for flagrant misuse of drones near airports, where they represent a very major hazard,” said Graeme Frater, Perth Airport operator and managing director of ACS Aviation.


Preparing for Drone Incidents in 2021 and Beyond

These high-profile cases are far from isolated events. And as drone technology becomes more advanced, affordable, and easier to access, the risk of drone incidents to airports will increase. If you’re not equipped to react quickly, the disruption these incidents cause can have a major impact on an airport’s revenue and reputation.

That’s why advanced detection systems such as drone radar have an important role to play in protecting airports from drone security threats over the coming years. Being able to detect and track drones as early as possible is the key to ensuring a swift and effective response.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to always be ready for everything. The more airports know about what’s going on their airspace, the better prepared – and secure – they’ll be.


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