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A Security Team's Guide to Airport Drone Defense: Securing Your Airport with Dedrone


Jackson Markey

airport drone defense airport control tower drone spotted

In a recent article on Airspace Security Magazine, I discussed why unauthorized drones and airports do not mix.  Countless stories have appeared in the news over the years regarding drone activity in federal airspace, citing safety concerns for passenger aircraft and disruption of airport operations. The cost of a drone-based shutdown can be significant, as evidenced by the Gatwick Airport shutdown which, during the 33 hours of suspended airport operations, cost airlines nearly $64.5 million in losses.  As a consequence, airports around the world are rapidly integrating counter-drone  technology into their security infrastructure and expanding their drone-related standard operating procedures (SOPs)  to ensure they are not the next airport making headlines.  

Airports around the world are bracing for the integration of drones in local airspace. There have been hits and misses with drones at airports in the past years, with many news stories about drones entering airport airspace and disrupting operations. Regulatory agencies such as the FAA, Transport Canada, EASA, and CAA guide drone pilots about when and where they can legally and safely fly. However, if regulatory guidance is ignored, either unintentionally or maliciously, then the burden of detecting drones and protecting airport operations squarely falls on the airport security team's shoulders.

Installing smart airspace security systems is only the first step to prevent shutdowns. Airport security leaders must then apply insights and intelligence from the airspace security solution to gain the most value from their system and create effective SOPs.  These guidelines inform security personnel on how  to respond before, during and after a drone incursion. 

In August 2020, the FAA announced an evaluation process for counter-drone technology for airports. Without counter-drone technology to assess drone activity, airports have been reliant on passenger and pilot eyewitness reports of drones, having to defend their operations through shutdowns or delays only after a drone appeared visibly in the airspace. Airport counter-drone programs are quickly becoming a priority. As more counter-drone technology is integrated at airports around the world, there will be a greater awareness of the actual occurrence of drone incursions in protected airport airspace.

Airports Apply Experience from Past Drone Incursions and Stay Ahead of Drone Threat

In a recent Dedrone webinar on airspace security at airports, Paul Diestelkamp, shared his experience as an air traffic controller, and what’s changed in airspace security in the nearly two years since the 2018 drone-based shutdown of London Gatwick airport. Ultimately, Diestelkamp shares, airports need to prepare for the inevitable integration of drones in the airspace. Sam Pile, airline pilot and director of Perspective Media – a drone aerial media and surveying company, agreed, “drones can be seen in a bad light, and the way we work around that is that we must have procedures, we have regulations, and we work together.”

Drone pilots that heed local laws and regulations will avoid airport airspace. But when a single drone veers off course and into restricted airspace, airports can now integrate security tools to provide early warning of unauthorized drones. Airport security teams can integrate airspace security technology to ensure they have ample warning of approaching drones, and deploy appropriate defensive procedures to mitigate any delays, shutdowns, collisions, or other harmful outcomes.

Watch “Airspace Security for Airports” webinar, available free and on-demand, here.

Getting Started with Airport Drone Defense

While developing an airport drone defense strategy may appear to be a daunting task, Dedrone has worked with over 15 international airports, such as Newcastle International Airport, to navigate the constantly changing regulatory landscape. Once an airport decides that it is time to protect its airspace from drones, Dedrone provides resources for airports to work with regulatory bodies such as the CAA and FAA to deploy detection technology and simplify the process of translating data into actionable insights. In 2018, Dedrone achieved approval from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), providing assurances that airports are using technology that has been rigorously tested and validated by a government agency.

Dedrone’s approach to drone detection programs at an airport begins with a baseline risk assessment. Collect data first, determine the threat profile of drones in your airspace, and then decide how to integrate a comprehensive airspace security program into your infrastructure and standard operating procedures (SOPs). A baseline risk assessment is accomplished by installing a passive radio-frequency sensor, which analyzes drone activity, drone types, flight times, without  interfering with active airport communication channels. Once an airport establishes its baseline activity, they can decide if the activity warrants further investigation and action.

While airports may initially want to consider how to eliminate the drone threat, the technology to remove drones from the skies will never be compatible with airport communication channels. Instead, airports must first consider how to ensure safe operations with a drone in the sky. Some examples of current SOPs implemented by Dedrone clients range from observing the flight and approaching the drone pilot, all the way to shutting down runways and diverting flights until the drone has passed.

Airport Drone Defense SOPs in Action

Dedrone recommends that our aviation clients begin their airspace security journey with the installation of Dedrone’s risk assessment solution to create a data-based baseline of airspace activity, and from there, create their own SOPs based on their specific threat profile. 

After collecting baseline intelligence and insights on drone activity at an airport, security managers can take a three-tiered approach to develop appropriate response protocols based on the threat level detected.

Step 1: Define Threat Tiers 

Many airports must first define what sort of drone incursion would require a response, and how to categorize the level of threat. For example: 

  • Low Threat: Drone is detected well outside the outer airport perimeter 
  • Medium Threat: Drone is located near airport perimeter or near takeoff/approach paths 
  • High Threat: Drone is persistent, causing an immediate and substantial risk to airport operations, is weaponized, or a drone swarm (two or more drones simultaneously) are detected

Step 2:Allocate Appropriate Resources

 Security managers should test and develop drone response protocols and build a UAS Response Team during “blue sky” conditions – before any drone appears in the airspace.  

UAS Response Team Protocols

  • Connect with local law enforcement and federal agencies (Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), European Union Aviation Safety, UK Civil Aviation Authority, etc.) to determine any cross-coordination required to respond to a drone threat 
  • Launch local “No Drone Zone” awareness campaigns and deploy signage at parks and other public locations nearby

Step 3: Incident Preparedness in Accordance with Threat:

Define, rehearse, test, deploy resources – learn how much time it takes to respond in an emergency – and continue to develop UAS response protocols. Incident response should correspond to the threat level. For example: 

  • Low Threat:  Notify proper personnel (SOC, Security, TSA, FAA) and document details (timestamp, description of UAS, location, altitude, direction of travel, any evasive action by drone) 
  • Medium Threat:  Execute protocols consistent with threat AND coordinate with ATC Tower regarding possible deviations of flight operations, notify Operations Manager, Public Relations, and activate Mass Notification (ie. AtHoc Warning System (AWS) and Everbridge).  If within airport jurisdiction, deploy security personnel to locate the pilot.  If not, coordinate with the jurisdiction and consider arrest. 
  • If UAS is found on the ground without a pilot, develop protocols for information gathering and documentation (SD Card, Serial Number, etc.). 
  • High Threat:  Follow all protocols associated with Low and Medium Threats AND exhaust all resources to identify and detain UAS pilots.  Establish Unified Command with Local/Federal resources and ATC Tower to alter flights or air traffic movements.  Consider runway closures.  Inform airport stakeholders.  Employ your own drones once airport operations have halted to expedite the search for UAS pilots. 

Step 4: Prepare for Future Drone Threats Through Risk Mitigation

 Reporting is essential for predicting, preparing, and preventing as well as documenting post-event after-action reports (AARs) for partnering with local or federal agencies.  Airspace security intelligence and insights will provide drone “hotspots,” or likely areas where drone pilots  deploy their flight, their takeoff location, and landing location. Drone detection equipment assists in creating predictive analytics and streamlines efforts to locate drones and pilots. 

Complete Airspace Security at Airports Starts with Dedrone

Dedrone provides drone protection solutions at over 20 airports in eight countries around the globe, including Newcastle International Airport and Perth, Scotland Airport, to protect passengers, airlines, and airport employees against drone threats.  

Watch: Airspace Security Insights from Chicago Department of Aviation

Regardless of drone flight regulations, or a drone pilot’s adherence to them, Dedrone provides airport security leaders with the assurance that they are seeing all airspace activity and protecting operations from malicious and unauthorized drone threats.  

Bracing for the Unmanned Future During COVID-19

As the world navigates the impacts of COVID-19 on airport operations and passenger travel, the threat of drones remains. Establishing a baseline assessment of airspace activity, while traffic is lowest, will enable airport security staff to establish how they can integrate counter-drone solutions to be a part of a safe path back to normal operations.

The challenge of drones at airports is complex and unique and will continually evolve as more drones come to market, regulations, and laws advance, and more passengers return to airports. Dedrone’s airspace security program provides airports with the flexibility to quickly begin their airspace assessment and then evolve and scale to meet the threat.

Dedrone will consult with you, your legal and procurement teams and local regulatory body (FAA, CCA, Transport Canada, EASA) to navigate the approval process and start developing your airports’ counter-drone strategy. Beginning with a single step – diagnosing your airport’s drone activity, airports worldwide can immediately increase the safety of their airfields and protect operations from a costly drone incursion.  


October 8, 2020

| Updated

April 25, 2023

About the author

Jackson Markey is the Enterprise Sales Manager at Dedrone where he works with organizations of all sizes to plan, implement, and scale their complete airspace security programs.

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