Drone use at airports: stay legal, stay safe

You see them flying at many events, and they are used by hobbyists for aerial videos or photos, by emergency responders to assess damage and by engineering firms to conduct surveys and aerial mapping. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) have grown in their versatility, and their convenience has increased their popularity. The privilege of drones’ convenience comes with a responsibility for professionals and hobbyists to use them within the law.

Drone use is primarily regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but it can also be regulated by state and local officials. Before conducting any drone flight, a user should consult federal, state and local laws, starting with the FAA website (www.faa.gov/uas/). The FAA has federal jurisdiction over drone operations and began putting a formal regulatory system in place in 2012. That system evolved into FAA Part 107, which states that drones weighing less than 55 pounds are subject to the FAA’s rules and regulations. These rules include drone pilot licensing, knowledge of safety guidelines, obtaining authorizations to fly in controlled airspace and waivers to conduct operations outside of Part 107 (night flights, flights beyond the line of sight, flights over people, etc.).   

With all these rules and regulations to consider, what do you do if someone asks to fly a drone at your airport? Many drone manufacturers have installed geofence software integral to their products that prevent the UAS from flying in controlled airspace. The drone manufacturers can disable these geofences once they are presented with proper documentation that the FAA has authorized the operations. However, not all manufacturers offer geofences, which means some drones can be launched within controlled airspace regardless of proper FAA vetting. Whether or not your airport is in controlled airspace, it is important that drone operators are advised that airport staff must ensure the proper FAA guidelines are followed before a pilot operates equipment around the airport. If the airport staff members are not notified of UAS operations — and, often, even if they are — there is little they can do to guarantee compliance. In any case, the onus falls on the drone operator (and drone manufacturer) to ensure safety.

Once all the appropriate waivers, authorizations and safety measures are in place, drones can be deployed at airports in innovative and time-saving ways. At Hanson, we have worked with the FAA to obtain authorizations and waivers for safe drone missions at many airports for wildlife tracking, approach surface surveys, aerial mapping, marketing and air traffic control tower sighting.

We know that airports often deal with nonaviation-related problems, including wildlife issues. Drones can be a helpful tool for providing a comprehensive view of wildlife. The personnel can see where animals access the airport property, how they travel across the airfield and if they bed down or nest. Regular videos and photos are useful for tracking wildlife in daylight and do not require a waiver. An authorization is needed to conduct the mission if the airport is in controlled airspace; however, with a nighttime waiver, infrared cameras can be used to track animals in the evening or early morning. We have found that some bird nests can be detected with an infrared camera in the early morning, when the nests are hotter than the ambient temperature. This is an innovative method to identify and manage bird nests around an airfield and on airport buildings.

We also have used drones to survey approach and departure surfaces. Traditionally, these surveys have been conducted with conventional methods; however, they can be done quickly and effectively with a drone. This is not to say that traditional survey methods are not needed during these operations; they provide ground control for the images. With drone technology, you can input the exact dimensions of the approach or departure surface, launch the drone and create an orthomosaic that gives you the elevation data needed to model any penetrations to your approach surface.

We have recently deployed drone technology to conduct an air traffic control tower siting. A project involved surveying several tower locations. The drone was launched at each proposed site to the height of the tower deck and completed a 360-degree turn. This was done during the zenith and after sunset to illustrate any potential objects obstructing an air traffic control operator’s line of sight. The data collected in this mission provided an added level of support in the tower siting report.

Drones can be used for many innovative and unique purposes, as well as simple aerial imagery or construction observation. Drones can provide invaluable data for projects. With drones, you are limited only by your imagination, and we can help you navigate the rules and regulations to guide your project to completion.

For more information, contact Shawn Gibbs at sgibbs@hanson-inc.com.