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Drone disruption at airports: A risk mitigation and insurance response

July 31, 2019

Industry concerns are rising with regard to potential disruption caused by drones due to the serious consequences for airports, passengers, airlines and the wider aviation ecosystem.

Drone attacks: An overview

Increased use and improved technology

Industry concerns are rising with regard to potential disruption caused by drones due to the serious consequences for airports, passengers, airlines and the wider aviation ecosystem.

According to the most recent Drone Airprox Count and Information, the number of incidents has gone from approximately 35 between 2013-2015 to nearly 290 from 2016-2018 in the UK alone.

Airports are facing an increasing threat from unauthorised and sometimes malicious use of drones in and around their premises. Personal drones are not only readily available but also becoming more powerful. Perpetrators are now able to orchestrate disruption some distance from the potential target with minimal risk or threat of discovery.

Militarily drones are also increasing in sophistication and can be used for a number of functions such as passive information collection or in a kinetic attack at an airport.

The use of drones in the delivery of small scale munitions can appeal to terrorists, insurgents and other militant non-state actors. Likewise unmanned aircraft appeal to states since they are largely inexpensive and provide a means to attack a target with a low risk to personnel and the perpetrator(s).

Whether the origin of the disruption is anarchical, terrorist motivated or even militarily strategic, airports must prepare themselves for increased levels of drone-based disruption in the future.

2018 Gatwick drone incident

In late December 2018, operations at London Gatwick airport were interrupted by a series of drone sightings over a 48-hour period, temporarily closing the airport. In all, Gatwick’s COO estimated that about 120,000 passengers suffered flight disruption. The perpetrators of the attack remain unknown but in April 2019 Gatwick confirmed they had reason to believe that inside knowledge may have contributed to the attack. The type of drone used could have been specifically selected to avoid detection based on Gatwick’s existing technologies. Gatwick also had reason to believe that whoever was piloting the drone may have either had sightlines to the runway and/or an ability to eavesdrop on internal radio communications within the airport.

Escalating frequency

According to the UK Airprox Board1 over the past eight years approximately 330 ‘near miss collisions’ have been identified between drones and aircraft. Of the 330, almost130 occurred in 2018 alone2. These statistics show an alarming escalation in the number of drone-related occurrences, elevating calls from the public and private sectors for regulators to enforce stricter controls on the use of drones around commercial aviation hubs.

Regulatory response

In March 2019 the UK Civil Aviation Authority responded by issuing Air Navigation Amendment Order 2019 (CAP1763), which widened drone-exclusion zones around airports to five kilometres long and one kilometre wide from the runway3. Questions remain whether this will be sufficient to discourage individuals intent on disruption.

Thus far, the aviation industry has avoided incidents resulting in injury or loss of life. However, it is important to recognise the dramatic increase in drone-related incidents in recent years, demonstrated by an approximate 730% increase in airport incidents4. This has lead to some important questions being raised around the risks to airports caused by drone use.

Questions being raised by the industry

In the context of increasing drone activity, it’s appropriate that airports are actively considering the extensive risk implications.

Discussions within the Willis Towers Watson Airport Risk Community (ARC) have highlighted some key areas of concern, which we will outline in the following report:

  1. What risk management measures can be taken to minimise disruption and damage caused by a drone incident?

  2. How might a drone incident affect the reputation of the airport among its stakeholders?

  3. Insurance market response:

    • Damage to physical assets caused by a drone
    • Interruption to business and loss of revenue as a result of drone disruption
    • Actions taken against airport operators by third parties?

Please download the full article from the below link to learn more about risk management, potential reputational damage and the insurance market response after a drone incursion.


Managing Director, Aerospace

Airport Risk Community Leadership

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