Airports, Unmanned Aircraft and Uncertainty

April 5, 2021
As the adoption rate of drones continues to grow, airports are increasingly worried about what they can do to prevent and deal with unmanned aircraft incursion.

As public drone usage continues to grow, airports across the US are growing concerned about how to deal with the inevitability of airspace intrusions.

On April 1, 2021, Justin Barkowski, vice president, regulatory affairs, American Association of Aviation Executives (AAAE) and Ray Ranne, executive officer to the 1st deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDA), joined Amit Samani, airspace security executive with Dedrone, to discuss what options there are currently for airports to take on drone intrusions.

Both Barkowski and Ranne noted that a lack of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidance on the issue is leaving airports feeling both hindered and unsure of what options they have. Ranne, who has been part of drafting a 19-page concept of operations (CONOPS) on drone intrusions between Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports, said airports should be collecting data and developing their own CONOPS, while the FAA works to develop standardizations. 

“You have to have a response plan and you have to have every entity involved. So, in our CONOPS plan, besides having the air traffic controller, you have to have local law enforcement,” Ranne said.

Ranne continued that for O’Hare’s plan, there are six law enforcement jurisdictions surrounding the airport that are part of their drone incursion CONOPS plan. Operations personnel, both airside and landside, are also part of the airports’ CONOPS, as well as local FBI, among others.

“Everybody has to be a player in the game here and has to be part of the solution,” Ranne said. “You have to have seamless security operation picture, that when the alert does come out and you get a visual on it, by the time you triangulate to get back to the operator, it might be in a completely different jurisdiction.”

Barkowski added, that while there is no one size fits all approach to airport drone security, the key is having some plan in place.

“You need to have something in place that you can turn to incase there is a drone disruption or sighting at your airport,” he said.

When developing a plan, key components to keep in mind are knowing when a drone incursion is a real threat and, if there is a threat and action needs to be taken, who is responsible for doing what.

“Depending on who sees it, how it’s being reported, how it’s sighted – there are a lot of questions that airport operations personnel and local law enforcement need to be thinking about,” Barkowski continued.

Ranne said that their CONOPS has three tiers of threat levels that dictate how a drone near the airport will be delt with.

Barkowski noted that the FAA’s lack of formal guidelines on airport drone incursions is hindering many airports from starting a plan. He said that the FAA has begun a program to test drone detection systems and develop standards that can be used to determine which systems are safe for use in the airport environment. It will be a key component for the entire industry to have more certainty as to which systems are approved or not, but Barkowski said results likely won’t be had for 18 to 24 months.

“It’s a very uncertain area right now for airports to navigate,” said Barkowski.

Ranne agreed, saying the lack of guidance from the federal government on getting airports authorization to have detection system is the biggest obstacle they’re facing. He added that they too are waiting for the approval of their 7460 Form for O’Hare and Midway, though they are expecting to receive it soon.

“Because of the lack of guidance from the FAA of what we can and can not do on the local level, really hinders people from moving ahead and doing what they want to do, because, obviously, you’re not going to invest millions of dollars in technology that 18 to 24 months from now, when the FAA comes out with their guidelines, is going to be obsolete or not approved,” Ranne said.

Because of this hurdle, Ranne said what O’Hare and Midway did was take a baby step approach with their CONOPS.

“We wanted to get a system in place that will hopefully be approved shortly, that will just collect analytics and data to see what is even out here. We have no idea what is even flying out here. Every month or so, we get a sighting and report here or there. But there could be a dozen more that we don’t even know about. So, we’re just trying to collect data so that we can have some ammunition, so to say, to move onto the next step and when we can upscale the system to begin the process of triangulating and finding the [drone] operator,” said Ranne.

Ranne added, though, that they are trying to temper the approach so that when the FAA guidelines do come out, they haven’t wasted resources on a system that they may then have to revamp.

“It’s a tough position to be in, because you want to do something but yet you’re very limited on what you can do,” he said.

Despite federal guidelines, plans should still be put in place on how to tackle drone intrusions. And Barkowski and Ranne both agreed that regular tabletop exercises, running through the plan and different responses, is crucial.

“We’ve heard good feedback from airports who have brought in everyone for a two, three-hour meeting – the local law enforcement, the FAA, TSA, whoever else needs to be involved in that plan – and walk through various scenarios that may occur in real life. I think that helps crystalize what people’s goal and responsibility are,” Barkowski said.

“You can’t perform if you don’t practice,” added Ranne. “If everybody is not on the same page, you’re going to have situations where you could potentially shut down a runway when it’s not needed or you don’t have the permission for it.”

Ranne said they make sure every player in their CONOPS knows exactly what their position is and what their roles are; between O’Hare and Midway, they run through the plan at least once a year.

About the Author

Walker Jaroch | Editor

Contact: Walker Jaroch

Editor | AMT

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