The military is helping police after sightings of a drone temporarily halted flights at Heathrow airport on Tuesday.
Scotland Yard said a "full criminal investigation" had been launched into the incident - and that officers were among those to see the drone.
Departures from the west London airport were suspended for about an hour.
It comes after thousands of passengers were caught up in disruption at Gatwick Airport last month following reports of drone sightings.
Heathrow airport, which is also working with the Met Police, said it was monitoring the situation and apologised to passengers affected by the disruption.
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The Met's Commander Stuart Cundy said the drone sighting was reported just after 17:00 GMT, with departing flights stopped as a precaution while initial inquiries were made.
"We are carrying out extensive searches around the Heathrow area to identify any people who may be responsible for the operation of the drone," he said.
"I want to be clear that the illegal operation of drones at an airfield is extremely dangerous.
"Under the Aviation Security Act it is an offence to endanger the safety of an aircraft; anyone found guilty of this offence could face a life sentence.
"We are deploying significant resources - both in terms of officers and equipment - to monitor the airspace around Heathrow and to quickly detect and disrupt any illegal drone activity; some of which are as a result of learning from the incidents at Gatwick."
While he confirmed military assistance had been brought in, he would not discuss their tactics in detail.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said during the incident that he was in contact with the airport about the drone sighting, and had spoken to the home secretary and defence secretary.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We are deploying specialist equipment to Heathrow Airport at the request of the Metropolitan Police."
BBC cameraman Martin Roberts, who works with drones, said he was driving on the M25 past Heathrow airport at about 5:45 GMT when he saw what he believes was a drone.
"I could see, I'd say around 300 feet up, very bright, stationary flashing red and green lights, over the Harmondsworth area," he said.
"I could tell it was a drone - these things have got quite distinctive lights - not a helicopter.
"The lights were very close together. It was a very clear night and the object was stationary, it was turning very, very slightly. I could see it very clearly, I'd say for about four to five minutes."
Gatwick said last week that it had spent £5m to prevent future attacks. Heathrow also confirmed it would be buying systems to guard against drones.
And it was announced this week that police would be given new powers to tackle the illegal use of drones.
BBC transport correspondent Tom Burridge said while the "significant" incident did not cause the same disruption as at Gatwick, it raises the question of how UK airports can deal with drones.
While they are looking at the latest technology, it is clear they are "playing catch-up" he said - adding that the aviation industry had been calling for "drastic action on this for months".
Alice Evans, BBC London, at Heathrow
A couple of hours after the first reports of a drone in the skies above Heathrow, it was business as usual in the Terminal 5 departure lounge - in a low blow to Gatwick, one member of staff told me it's because "we're a good airport".
Although flights were up and running again pretty quickly, there are still plenty of passengers who have faced disruption tonight.
One of those is Catriona Walsh, who was on a flight from Basel.
Ms Walsh, who was doing a couple of days of work despite being on maternity leave, said she won't get to her final stop in Wales for another couple of hours now that she has missed her train.
Her flight was held on the runway for about 50 minutes as staff told passengers about the drone.
"It was all calm - frustrating rather than worrying," she said.
Michael, a fellow passenger on the flight who did not want to provide his surname, was less optimistic.
"I was worried I might have to camp here," he said.
He said the problems here and at Gatwick have shown "exactly how to shut a country - this country - down", adding that police need to "just shoot drones down" as soon as they are sighted.
More than 140,000 passengers at Gatwick were affected during 36 hours of chaos between 19 and 21 December.
About 1,000 flights were cancelled there over three days due to the drone sightings.
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