AIRPORTS CONFRONT DRONES WITH SAFETY AND SECURITY TOP OF MIND
By Sandy Smith
One of the last things a pilot on approach to a busy airport wants to worry about is an errant drone colliding with his or her aircraft. Unfortunately, as the world saw in December and January, this is exactly what happened in the airspace near London Gatwick and Newark Liberty International airports. The incident at Gatwick, reported to involve multiple drones operating over a 3-day period between December 19 to 21, resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations and well over 100,000 passenger disruptions during the very busy holiday travel season. The incident at Newark, although less disruptive, was reported by pilots to involve a drone flying “20-30 feet” away from an airliner and forced air traffic controllers to divert air traffic to other runways at the airport until the FAA was confident the drone no longer posed a threat to air safety.
Both events highlight the safety and operational impact unauthorized flights of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) on or near airports can pose.
Airports are an obvious choice for a close encounter with an untrained drone operator who “looks for what appears to be a large, wide-open space to fly their drone that happens to be near an airport,” said Scott Brockman, President and CEO of the Memphis/Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA). Complicating the issue: “The speed at which drones and other technology is advancing and the ability of the aviation system to truly adapt. It’s coming. Are we ready for it?”
The answer to that question remains somewhat unclear. Still, some airports are taking a dual leadership role in making sure that protocols are developed and in exploring the many benefits of drones.
“It’s frustrating to see these near-misses and know there is potential for an awful accident,” said Marily Mora, President and CEO of Reno Airport Authority and a member of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee. “They have so much potential to help in airports that we don’t want to see the progress stopped.”
CONCERNS, CLOSE CALLS
As the technology improves and the price point declines, UAS offer potential for airports. But they offer that same potential for users outside the airport, threatening control of airspace.
ACI-NA member airports have been proactive on the issue. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hosted a winter working session that included the FAA, FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, state police, the U.S. Coast Guard, and others. The PANYNJ issued a statement about the event:
“We are committed to keeping Port Authority airports at the forefront of protection and technology. Federal law empowers federal officials to respond to drone activity. The Port Authority hosted a working session at its World Trade Center headquarters to review and enhance protocols for the rapid detection and interdiction of drones…For security reasons, we cannot discuss specifics. We are committed to continuing our collaboration with the FAA and federal and state law enforcement partners to protect against any and all drone threats to the maximum extent possible.”
The FAA requires pilots that operate near airports use the FAA’s UAS Data Exchange – Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system to identify their craft and UAS operations. One major problem: “The majority of people who use that system are the responsible pilots,” said Thomas Mackie, Aviation Practice Leader and Vice President at Woolpert. “There’s a lot of work to be done to help airports and air traffic organizations, for us in aviation to educate, and for the community to communicate properly back to the airports when flying.”
“It’s frustrating to see these near-misses and know there is potential for an awful accident… They have so much potential to help in airports that we don’t want to see the progress stopped.”
– Marily Mora, FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee
It also means that all players – airports, airlines, air traffic control and the government – get on the same page, Brockman said. “The biggest issue is one that’s probably the most difficult to solve: the identification and acceptance of the sharing of information and the blending of technology across the various industry groups. Right now, everyone operates in a very proprietary way, but in order to truly integrate and manage drones in a safe way, we have to find a way to safely share certain information.”
Brockman believes the solution is best tackled in small bites rather than “the whole enchilada,” which he fears will slow down evaluation, analysis, and implementation. “When you get the ruling that says, ‘That test was a failure, therefore, we’ve got to take a step back and re-evaluate which puts us further behind as technology continues to advance.”
Reno-Tahoe was one of the first seven airports to become part of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system and accounted for about a fourth of the initial approvals, Mora said. She points to the local general aviation airport, the Reno-Tahoe owned Reno-Stead Airport, where NASA has been conducting UAS testing to develop protocols for the integration of drones with manned aircraft. The City of Reno, and Flirtey, a Reno-based UAS company, were selected in May 2018 as one of 10 projects for the USDOT’s UAS integration Pilot Program. More recently, on Jan. 14, 2019, the Nevada UAS Test Site’s Smart Silver State Project was named one of the three projects to mature technologies for unmanned aircraft traffic management.
POTENTIAL FOR GOOD
It is clear that drone technology is coming, and airports must be a participant in driving how drones impact the airspace in the community. That said, airports see positive benefits in their own operations. Woolpert, for instance, uses drones as “another layer of our remote sensing capabilities,” said Mackie. That includes construction site monitoring, aerial photography, pavement and structural assessments, wetland delineation and environmental applications.
Woolpert also advises its airport clients on integration efforts, ranging from regulatory and UAS technology to public outreach and awareness.
Perhaps nowhere is the potential for drone technology more exemplified than at Woolpert client Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia. “They have sections of fence that are in the swamp and are primarily accessible in waders or via boat. Within five minutes of us flying an inaccessible perimeter fence line and showing what we could do, we identified trees that had recently fallen and taken out a section of fence,” Mackie said. “You can’t hire enough people to do this efficiently.”
As one of nine lead participants in the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, MSCAA landed approval to test drones at Memphis International Airport for checking the perimeter fence security. It helped that the airport knew the topography of the airfield, what the fence looks like and how it should be maintained. The idea is to input the GPS so that the drone can recognize changes to the fence lines. Brockman sees a future of nesting stations, where a battery of drones can recharge and download information before returning to scan the perimeter, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the system.
When the drone encounters a taxiway or runway, “it will stop and communicate with the tower independently to get approval to cross that area,” Brockman said. If the drone detects an anomaly in the perimeter, it will communicate that personnel need to be dispatched.
The saving of staff time would be enormous, Brockman said, especially if implemented at airports around the world – and the possibility for human error would be removed. It is not a perfect system – not yet at least. “If the battery life and distance can be improved, it will be a phenomenal benefit to aviation by being able to do this,” Brockman said.
Memphis’ tenant FedEx also is participating in the tests using drones to inspect aircraft. Brockman said the drone could be programmed with the manufacturer’s specifications for that exact plane. “It knows every rivet, every protrusion, every light.”
This inspection would not replace the pilot and mechanic inspections, but rather supplement or enhance human inspection.
“Right now, everyone operates in a very proprietary way, but in order to truly integrate and manage drones in a safe way, we have to find a way to safely share certain information.”
– Scott Brockman, Memphis/Shelby County Airport Authority
Airports also could use drones in ways similar to large construction projects. “Instead of sending people up on roofs to inspect buildings and facilities, there are several design and engineering construction companies that are using drones to do so,” said Dean Schultz, Reno’s Chief Operating Officer. “They are much more efficient and gathering a lot more data in a short amount of time. We wouldn’t want to miss out on that opportunity as well. Soon, we could have a drone doing the runway inspection.”
With the pace of adoption and improvements of technology, the sky is the literal limit. “There is testing going on every day at airports,” Schultz said. “It’s little by little, following the crawl, walk, run method. We’re in the crawl stage, but it won’t be long before we’re walking and running.”
Mackie anticipates a day when the general public will gain more of an understanding of the potential impact and the importance of abiding by the regulations. Improvement in sense-and-avoid technologies and the UTM also are being developed.
As improved drones and safety mechanisms merge, “that’s going to allow a large variety of UAS applications while helping mitigate the safety concerns with midair collisions and property damage,” Mackie says. “Every year we see better and better safety mechanisms on the aircraft themselves. You’ll see another adjustment to our federal regulation in the U.S., which will ease the ability for more UAS operations over people, over public areas.”
It may be just in time, because drone technology itself continues to march forward and new uses will continue to be adapted, Brockman believes. “At some point, there will be a cost-effective drone that will be able to carry a payload of more than a couple of pounds for longer than 10-15 minutes. When that occurs, the pressure to put some of those things into society without a real good plan to integrate them safely and effectively is really a concern at least for me.”
Brockman believes within the next decade, there will be unmanned, low-altitude personal aircraft that can ferry passengers downtown – and he believes airports can play a role in that. “Business models will operate differently than they do now. How are you going to monetize your airport if you lose parking, because of autonomous vehicles? I see a day when things are so automated that you’ll need to find a new way to monetize operations. You’ll still need miles of runway, terminals to get people on the plane, but how much of this other stuff are you going to need? That will be determined over time.”
“There is testing going on every day at airports… It’s little by little, following the crawl, walk, run method. We’re in the crawl stage, but it won’t be long before we’re walking and running.”
– Dean Schultz, Reno Airport Authority
If there has been one good thing to come out of the recent UAS incidents at Gatwick and Newark, it is an increased awareness, Mora believes. “In both cases, to have operational considerations and delays because of drones, it’s something we don’t want to see happen. It’s going to step up the cry for airport operators to get the drone detection technology that the FAA is working on. This will just speed up the conversation and the need for all of that.” <
TRANSPORT CANADA: TIGHTER RULES
Transport Canada is implementing new rules for drone use on June 1, which will require a certificate for non-commercial drone pilots. These pilots must pass an online examination to receive a pilot certificate. As of that date, they will need to have their pilot certificate and proof of registration readily available.
Other changes coming June 1 raise the altitude at which drones can fly – from 300 to 400 feet in the air. Rules requiring a distance from an airport – 5.6 km (3 miles) – remain the same.