Unmanned aircraft might have a future at airports

Business Insider – One of the top concerns among regulators and industry experts is that it's difficult for unmanned aircraft to share airspace with planes, helicopters, and other aircraft; drones can often clog up airspace and cause confusion among air traffic controllers and pilots.

But a new partnership between the city of Atlanta, robotics company 3DR, software firm Autodesk, and engineering firm Adkins might eventually change this.

The companies are working together to map out the airspace of the city’s Hartfield-Jackson International Airport to prepare for a potential expansion of the airport, according to Engadget. This could serve to prove to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials the value of unmanned aircraft in runway and other airport operations, which would significantly reduce the operational costs of running an airport, as well as enhance safety and operational efficiency.

This specific partnership is a special exception to normal FAA rules. The agency, which maintains regulatory authority over the commercial use of drones, prohibits drone usage around airports, primarily because of the danger they could pose in disrupting flights and confusing air traffic controllers. If airports desire to use drones, they must currently receive special permission from the agency like the groups have done in this case.

If regulated properly, here are some possible use cases and benefits for using drones in runway operations:

  • Collect airspace data that could be used by airport officials. In a similar fashion to how they're being used in this case, it's possible that drones could capture data on airspace and relay that information back to airport officials. This data could be used to help with possible renovations, similar to what Atlanta is doing here, but also to help more generally identify flaws and determine where operational improvements must be made.
  • Coordinate and direct takeoffs and landings for safety purposes. Drones, if used properly and safely, could eventually replace human workers on runways and in the airport. Not only would this eliminate the need to pay an airport staffer to be on the ground, but it would also, in theory, enhance the safety of runways by removing a person who could be harmed by a plane.
  • Further, it might be possible for drones to collect local weather data in the future. Local weather patterns and trends can have a huge impact on the takeoff and landing of planes, which pilots often note can be the most dangerous part of the entire flight. With NASA already exploring unmanned aircraft to collect weather data, it's possible that drones on runways could be used in the future to collect similar data, then relay information to air traffic controllers so that they can stop a takeoff or landing if there are dangerous conditions.

These use cases for airports could bring down costs and enhance overall airport efficiency. Running the day-to-day operations of an airport, especially a larger one in a major city, is very expensive — Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), for example, spends approximately $1 billion per year on its operations, The Wall Street Journal reported last year. Using drones for the tasks listed above could help an airport such as LAX lessen this burden while also improving safety and enhancing efficiency.

Drones turned the corner in 2015 to become a popular consumer device, while a framework for regulation that legitimizes drones in the US began to take shape. Technological and regulatory barriers still exist to further drone adoption.

Drone manufacturers and software providers are quickly developing technologies like geo-fencing and collision avoidance that will make flying drones safer. The accelerating pace of drone adoption is also pushing governments to create new regulations that balance safety and innovation.

Safer technology and better regulation will open up new applications for drones in the commercial sector, including drone delivery programs like Amazon’s Prime Air and Google’s Project Wing initiatives.

Image citation: Halftermeyer, CC BY-SA 4.0

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