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Heathrow airport is recovering after two days of British Airways cancellations due to a pilot strike that grounded the airline worldwide on Monday and Tuesday. And now, the largest airport in Europe by passenger traffic has to prepare for another operational risk on the horizon.

A group of climate activists are planning a demonstration during which they will fly drones within the airport’s five-kilometer (three-mile) exclusion zone. The group, which calls itself Heathrow Pause, is protesting plans for a third runway, which will ultimately increase the airport’s carbon emissions. They’re hoping to cause disruptions to flights throughout the day.

The BBC previously reported that the protestors have vowed to keep their drones out of aircraft’s direct flight paths, fly them at a low altitude (roughly head-height), and begin the protest early in the morning, before the airport’s daily operations really kick into gear.

So, how likely is all this to cause travel woes in London on Friday? Not very, said Kristy Kiernan, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“If they keep to that, below head height, they would be quite difficult to detect anyway from the normal ways we have of detecting,” she said. But, she added, if they expand the scope of their protest or fly the drones farther afield, “there is a potential for tremendous disruption.”

Photo by AmandaLewis / Getty Images.
Photo by AmandaLewis / Getty Images.

Kiernan’s colleague Ryan Wallace, also an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle, agreed with her assessment.

“The risk is relatively minimal and it sounds like they are purely doing this to get attention more than anything.” But, he added, that doesn’t mean this demonstration is completely safe, either. “For example, what if they lose the data link and the drone flies away? That could introduce new risks that they’re not prepared to deal with.”

In many places, civilian aviation regulators like the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. or the Civil Aviation Authority in Britain do not have the jurisdiction to “mitigate” unmanned aircraft near airports.

“Even if there is a knowledge that there is a drone out there, the limitation is detection only,” Wallace said. In order to get drones out of an airport’s airspace, the airport operators need to coordinate with local law enforcement.

“If the operator isn’t co-located with where the protest is taking place, they’re going to have difficulty tracking them down,” Wallace added.

Heathrow Airport has said it’s working with London’s Met Police to keep airplanes on schedule throughout the demonstration.

Kiernan said that law enforcement officers are likely to have a head start in mitigating any disruptions the protest could cause. The action’s announced 3 a.m. start time, she said, “gives law enforcement ample time to track them down.”

But, she said, the protest could still have broader implications for aviation safety, security and scheduling.

“The greater risk is that this becomes an effective method of protest,” Kiernan said. “The greater concern is that this becomes a tool that disrupts the efficiency of the system.”

Featured photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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