The Airport and the Drone Can Be Friends

Sept. 23, 2020
Airports and drones need not be enemies. Instead, the time is now to integrate drones into the airport environment and larger aviation community.

Drones and airports don’t mix, or at least events of recent memory point to it. London’s Gatwick Airport was brought to a standstill in 2018 after drones were repeatedly sighted near the airport –solidifying for many the destructive potential remotely piloted vehicles pose to airport operations.

However, airports and drone operators do not have to live in animosity of each other; nor should they, as Paul Diestelkamp, head of business development & solutions, Air Navigation Solutions; Sam Pile, airline pilot and director of Perspective Media – a drone aerial media and surveying company; and Amit Samani, airspace security executive, Dedrone, argued in a recent webinar titled Airspace Security for Airports.

Over the 30 minute presentation, the three laid out how the vast majority of drone operators are aviation enthusiasts with no intention to interrupt airport operations and air traffic, and that drones should start to be integrated with airports and the aviation community.

Answering the question of what the top threats drone pose are, Diestelkamp said it is mass availability. There is no license required to buy and operate a drone, giving way to many flyers being unaware of what they are doing and where they are flying. However, he stressed that this is not a bad thing – people should be able to buy and fly drones license free, he said – and that a greater issue may be framing the debate around drones in terms of risk.

“I do think that the focus on threats and risks is part of the problem,” Diestelkamp said. “Maybe if we focused more on integration and more on the positive side of drones and how we can make them part of the system, then this mass availability of drones isn’t a threat anymore because it becomes part of the system in a structured way.”

Pile agreed, adding that “drones can be seen in a bad light and the way we work around that is we have procedures, we have regulations and we work together.”

Diestelkamp said that for many airports he has worked with, their first step and main concern has been security – detecting, jamming or shooting down drones – and that the events at Gatwick created a sense of urgency in the industry.

And while drone security is important, airports need to remember the environment they operate in.

“When we go into an airport, their first question is ‘how do I shoot it out of the sky?’” Samani said. “In and around and airfield, a lot of the products that are used to ensure that planes can land safely use the same frequency as drones. So, shooting a drone out of the sky is not potentially logical near an airfield.”

What airports need to do is figure out what their clear objective is. If a drone is detected near their operations, what is the first step that airport takes?

“Do you want to achieve safe operations and continuous operations? Or is it security that is your focus?” Diestelkamp said. “What do you do? Do you shut the place down? That might contradict your objective in the first place.

"We need to be in an environment where we assume everyone is doing what they are meant to and what they are allowed to, and everyone is doing it with good intentions unless we have evidence that someone is not doing that," Diestelkamp continued. "In that case, we deal with that one; not all of them. That is really critical and really key in an airport environment where air traffic and drones need to live and work together.”

The integration of objective-based regulation is key not only for airport operations, but also for airlines and their pilots so they know what to do and except when an airport has a violating-drone.

And this integration and education extends to the community around an airport, with Pile stressing that bringing them into the conversation must be part of the process.

“An important step to take down the line is to try and bring the community into the operation too. If they’re not sure if that drone is legal or not, how can they inform us? One way, of course, is calling up the airport. What I’d liked to see down the line, is along the lines of a departure list of all approved drone operations in that airspace with their times,” said Pile.

Educating the drone-flying community themselves is also a must. As it stands, when someone buys a drone, they aren’t given anywhere to go to learn what regulations may exist, or what their local air space looks like, leading hobbyists to inadvertently fly into air space they are not permitted to be in.

“Those who are operating drones, even for fun, as long as it’s legal and safe, we want to involve them in our community of pilots and unmanned pilots,” said Pile.

Diestelkamp said drone sightings near airports are still rare, giving airports the time and opportunity to develop their objectives and regulations.

However, the window to do so is shrinking. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, alone, Dedrone has seen a 100 percent increase in drone operations, Samani noted.

“Let’s give ourselves the challenge to make sure this evolves in the right direction,” said Diestelkamp.

About the Author

Walker Jaroch | Editor

Contact: Walker Jaroch

Editor | AMT

[email protected]


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