Delay in introducing counter-drone system leaves Dublin Airport vulnerable to more shutdowns

Plans are afoot to address drone hazard by end of 2025 but weekend events show even brief infringements can cause havoc

On three separate occasions over the past two weeks, suspected illegal drone activity at Dublin Airport has seen flights delayed, grounded and diverted with the plans of thousands of passengers travelling to and from Ireland thrown into disarray as a result.

While operational shutdowns of 10-40 minutes might not sound like a major issue, so precise are the movements of aircraft in and out of international airports and so finely tuned are the fuel loads carried by planes, that even the briefest of disruptions can wreak havoc.

And so it was in Dublin this weekend although the delays and disruptions pale in comparison to what happened at Gatwick Airport over two days in the run-up to Christmas 2018.

That particular drone drama at the airport just outside London started shortly after 9pm on Wednesday, December 19th when a keen-eyed Gatwick employee heading home from a long shift spotted a drone close to the perimeter of the runway. He alerted air traffic control and a full emergency response was implemented immediately.


There were other sightings of what appeared to be the same drone leading to the shutdown of the airport. Over the course of that night and throughout the following day, the airport remained in a state of high alert with flights suspended. Every time the authorities thought they were in the clear, more drones appeared or, at the least, there were reports of more sightings.

As the crisis continued, the military and antiterrorism police units became involved and hundreds of thousands of passengers had their Christmas plans upended with the incident costing the airport and the airlines flying into it tens of millions of pounds.

Multiple inquiries were launched and countless false leads followed. The culprits were never found.

There have been reports of countless drone sightings at airports all over the world since then and while none have caused disruption on the scale of Gatwick, shutdowns and the suspension of operations have been a factor of almost all of them.

So it has been in Dublin in recent days. The suspected drone activity over the bank holiday weekend caused six flights on the approach to Dublin to be diverted to Shannon and Belfast on Saturday between 2.10pm and 2.55pm with at least four further flights diverted on Friday evening between 6.45pm and 7.10pm.

Operations were also suspended in line with protocols on Wednesday, January 25th, for about 20 minutes as a result of another drone sighting at the airfield.

In terse statements issued on both Friday night and Saturday afternoon, airport operator DAA confirmed flight operations had been suspended “for safety reasons for a very short period... following a confirmed drone sighting on the airfield” adding that it was “illegal to fly drones within 5km of an airport in the State”.

The DAA would not be drawn further on the impact the drone activity was having or speculate as to who might have been behind the drone flights.

As with airline authorities elsewhere, it would have been concerned that being overly vocal or speculative could impact the prospects of future prosecution and run the risk of prompting copycat activity at the airport.

Drone disruption of this kind was the very thing the Irish aviation sector had in mind when, in 2015, it led Ireland to become one of the first countries in Europe to legislate for the use of the lightweight flying machines.

Under the legislation, a drone cannot operate within 5km of an aerodrome or airport and cannot be used over the heads of an assembly of people, over urban areas or in restricted areas such as military installations or prisons. A drone is not allowed to fly higher than 120 metres or more than 300 metres from its operator.

But it appears as if the law was clearly being ignored – wilfully or otherwise – this weekend, something which saw the Garda involved almost immediately. A spokesman for the Garda confirmed that an investigation into the illegal activity had been launched.

The spokesman said that shortly after 2pm on Saturday gardaí in Dublin Airport were alerted to a confirmed sighting of a drone. “Gardaí conducted a search of the area and the matter is being fully investigated.”

While drone activity is a headache for the management of the airport, and a nightmare for passengers, it tends to be airlines that bear the financial brunt of the disruption, something which no doubt prompted Ryanair to issue a robust statement on Saturday afternoon. It said on Friday four Ryanair aircraft and more than 700 passengers had their flights diverted to Shannon and Belfast, and on Saturday “another four flights and 700 passengers were diverted, with thousands more having their flights delayed”.

Ryanair said: “Such drone disruptions at Ireland’s main airport are unacceptable. We are calling on Minister [for Transport Eamon] Ryan to take urgent action to protect the country’s main airport from repeated disruptions from illegal drone activity.”

The Irish Times contacted the Department of Transport seeking a response to the Ryanair statement but one had not been forthcoming at the time of writing.

Ian Hudson is a Bradford-based drone enthusiast and runs a related Twitter account, @UAVHive, which has more than 17,000 followers. He is very vocal when it comes to drone activity at airports and has long held the view that the Gatwick disruption was not caused by drones, not least because at no point over the two days of chaos, did anyone – neither the public, the press or the authorities – capture any drone on camera despite frenzied attempts to do so.

He suggests the chaos was instead caused by misplaced panic and false sightings.

This weekend he said the drone sighting in Dublin was more “plausible” not least because one of the reports was during daylight hours but he said questions needed to be asked about what had happened over the weekend.

“It could be a mistake as we haven’t seen any evidence of the drones. Yes the one in daylight was the most plausible but at night any LED lights on a drone would be very dim so it is hard to see how they would have been seen by anyone.

“The airport hasn’t said where they came from. Has someone just called up to cause mischief? How have they verified it? How many methods of confirmation are there? I wouldn’t say it couldn’t have happened but at the same time there are question marks.”

He said those question marks would persist until a proper counter-drone system was installed at the airport. “The real benefit of the counter-drone systems is not to tell you a drone is there but to tell you a drone isn’t there, to counter what might be a genuinely innocent mistake. Without a counter-drone system, you can’t disprove a sighting so you have to consider the worst case scenarios.”

He also asked why, after “over four years after the farce at Gatwick, Dublin Airport hasn’t invested in a counter-drone system”.

One aviation source which The Irish Times spoke to was more convinced the sightings were real and not accidental.

“It looks like it was deliberate given the timings,” the source said. “It was targeted and it is not easy to unlock a consumer drone which is geo-fenced which means it can’t go within 5km of an airport. It could not have happened by accident and you would need to get a custom unlock done but there is firmware available for that.”

He said plans had been made to deploy a system to detect and possibly neutralise drones at Dublin but ran into difficulties in 2019 after which Covid hit, delaying any planned implementation further.

A so-called Plan for Aviation Safety published by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) – which has the responsibility for managing Irish airspace – last month goes at least some way to answering when systems might be implemented and integrated.

It points to the timeline being followed and sets out two new actions: “to work with the Department of Transport and drone industry stakeholders to facilitate the safe integration of drones into the Irish civil aviation system” by the end of next year and to work with aircraft operators, airport operators and other stakeholders “to address the risks of drone infringements” by the end of 2025.

“That seems a long way away when you consider how quickly you can shut down an airport,” the aviation source said.

In response to queries, the IAA said it has worked with “all major airports in the State, Air Traffic Control, Airport Police, and An Garda Síochána in developing and implementing effective Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems plans, proportional to the criticality of the infrastructure”.

A spokesman said the “specifics of each plan are not disclosed for obvious safety and security reasons, however they include methods for both detecting and safely responding to unauthorised drone activity, including methods that contribute to identifying the drone operator.”