Heathrow turns to Thales for anti-drone tech

Airport buys in drone-spotting system from Aveillant, a Cambridge startup bought by Thales in 2017

Heathrow will use an anti-drone product from Thales to avoid flight disruption from rogue drones. 

The system, made by Thales subsidiary Aveillant, have already been deployed at the London airport as part of wider anti-drone efforts managed by systems integrator Operational Solutions. Cambridge-based Aveillant was acquired by French Thales in 2017. 

The anti-drone investment follows the two-day Gatwick shutdown at the end of 2018, which disrupted a thousand flights but no drone or operator discovered. Last year, there was a near-miss between a private jet and a drone at 4,000ft near Luton Airport, while in 2018 a Virgin Atlantic flight came within ten feet of a drone as it landed at Heathrow. Climate change activists have also used drone disruption for airport protests. 

The Aveillant technology uses what it calls holographic radar to spot mystery drones like the one that disrupted Gatwick. Traditional radar systems revolve, meaning they can't see everything at once and miss data when looking away. Aveillant's system has always-on 360-degree coverage, offering a full 3D picture at all times, meaning it can better track targets. The radar system can spot anything from birds to clouds, though it was first designed to better see "clutter" kicked up by wind farms. Software embedded into the system specifically spots drones, and can be updated as drone designs change. 

The technology doesn't have the ability to knock drones out of the sky, but instead detects and tracks drones near the airfield in order to alert officials before the aircraft can cause havoc. It can also look for the operator in order to pinpoint their location. Drones were last year banned from being flown within 5km of an airport, suggesting the Thales system will be used to police that restricted area.

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Thales says the new equipment will help minimise delays from drones and increase safety, as drones sucked into a landing plane's engine could cause significant damage, especially with larger models. 

“The safety and security of our passengers and colleagues is our number one priority," said Jonathan Coen, director of security for Heathrow Airport. "That is why we’re investing in this new cutting-edge technology which will enhance our capabilities in the detection and deterrence of drones in and around our airfield.”

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