Climate activists fail drone flight protest over Heathrow Airport


Traffic at Heathrow airport has remained undisturbed, despite environmental activists planning to fly drones to halt operations. The organization behind the protest accuses the airport of using jammers.

The activists of “Heathrow Pause” were hoping to interrupt traffic at Europe’s busiest airport to highlight the role of aviation in global warming, as well as the incompatibility of the Heathrow extension with the British government’s commitments to reach a net zero CO2 emissions balance by 2050.

On June 25, 2018, the British Parliament approved the controversial expansion of London Heathrow Airport (LHR) by building a third runway, despite protests from London mayor Sadiq Khan (who supports the expansion of Gatwick instead) and local councils, concerned by additional noise and pollution. Back in 2015 when the expansion was discussed, then-mayor of London Boris Johnson campaigning in the general election promised he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction of that third runway”. Elected shortly after, he was however absent when the project reached the Parliament.

Heathrow Pause planned to fly light toy drones in Heathrow’s exclusion zone. However, the airport authority reported that its “runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational”. Only one drone flight has been successful, as protesters encounter technical problems that they attribute to signal jamming.

Eleven people have been arrested so far, including Irish Paralympian James Brown. Two protesters were arrested near the airport earlier in the morning, while five leaders of the movement were preemptively arrested a day before “for suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance”, according to the Metropolitan Police. They all could face jail sentences.

It is the second protest of that kind in a year. On the morning of December 20, 2018, drones spotted in and around London’s Gatwick Airport (LGW) airfield, have led to the suspension of all flights “for safety reasons”. And the uproar seems to be serious. The airport says its airfield has been closed as authorities continue to investigate multiple drone sightings detected since the previous evening.

According to Ben Marcus, Co-Founder and Chairman, AirMap, a drone traffic management provider, airports are not ready for such events. “Traditional air traffic management (ATM) systems were not originally built to manage hundreds of thousands of daily flights by unmanned aircraft,” he told AeroTime, adding “fortunately, a lot can be done through basic regulation and technology to reduce these risks to a manageable level. […] airports need to consider implementing longer-term and broader solutions to cater to the increase in commercial drone usage that we’re expecting to see worldwide in the coming years”.

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