Preparing for an invasion

The number of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) commonly known as drones have seen a vast increase over the last 5 years and are expected to increase 10-fold globally from 2015 to almost 68m in 2021. As the pervasiveness of drones continues to gather pace they are being put to a variety of industrial uses in agriculture, transport, media & entertainment and other industries. But what are the implications for airports? Panos Spiliotis reports.

Integration of UAS technology into controlled airspace will be a critical component to reduce the risk that drone operations currently pose to the safety of manned aviation at and around airports, as well as challenges to privacy, and the security of aviation.

For any citydweller, anyone who has visited a major tourism site or anyone who has attended a significant cultural event or music festival, the presence of drones in the sky has become very much part of the scenery. A recent study by PWC estimates their potential value generated can climb to a staggering $127 billion in the near future – with some of it reflecting current opportunities for airports and aviation itself. So, what does that mean for airports and airport operators? How can we balance the threats and the opportunities presented by such a rapidly-emerging technology?

Modern drone technology has given rise to opportunities and challenges that are as numerous as its many applications. For airports, this development gives rise to two key considerations: firstly, keeping airports safe from unwanted drone activities especially by hobbyists and potentially from terrorist or criminal acts. Secondly, facilitating the use of UAS technology where it adds value to an airport’s operations or commercial activities. Integration of the technology into controlled airspace will be a critical component to reduce the risk that drone operations currently pose to the safety of manned aviation at and around airports, as well as challenges to privacy, and the security of aviation.

ACI EUROPE’s early attention went to making sure that authorities were taking sufficient measures to mitigate the safety risk posed by amateur drone pilots. These drones can pose serious risks to manned aviation including the risk of a collision with manned aircraft. Numerous near-misses and some incidents involving the unsafe use of amateur UAVs around airports have occurred at European airports. Collisions with commercial aircraft have so far been avoided in Europe, although Switzerland’s Transportation Safety Investigation Board (SUST) has warned it is only a matter of time until one happens if measures are not taken. That risk is compounded by the fact that current technical knowledge is limited concerning the likelihood and the consequences of such a collision.

Even if we are successful in preventing major accidents and incidents involving amateur drones, even sightings or near-misses prompt closures of busy airport runways such as Dubai Airport’s hour-long closure in October 2016. This kind of disruption will only become more frequent, affecting passenger journeys and entailing substantial financial cost for airports and airlines alike. Many airports will have to decide on the optimal technological and operational measures to guard against such potential disruptions.

Untapped potential

Despite these safety threats, drone technology presents enormous potential for aviation. UASs are not necessarily a hazard. In fact, properly operated in-house drones have a lot to offer airports. Today’s technology boasts levels of performance and reliability that render them a potentially useful tool for several aspects of airport operations. When it comes to a number of tasks inside and around the airport perimeter, the deployment of drone services could help drive process improvements and cost efficiencies, as well as the development of new business opportunities.

Drone applications currently feasibly include pavement surface condition or ground lighting inspections, but also obstacle surveys, security-related tasks such as clearing or securing areas and perimeters, construction work surveying and surveillance as well as improved situational awareness during emergencies and emergency exercises, 3D mapping etc. In as soon as 3-5 years’ time, we could see operational tasks like runway and taxiway inspections, aircraft checks by airlines, and the calibration of navigational equipment (ILS, PAPI) done by drones. Several airports already use UASs for ad hoc aerial photography of their aerodrome.

Surveying tasks can typically take 30-40% less time to conduct using drones whereas the current PAPI and ILS calibration costing €100,000 can be cut by up to 50%. For other activities such as roof top or building façade inspections or surveying drones are a much safer alternative to industrial climbers. Several other applications will undoubtedly surface once the technology and rules are in place. In many cases the obstacles to deploying drones are not technological, but regulatory and operational. This is an area where the industry and regulators at the European and national level need to work hand in glove to seize the opportunity and foster the development of global leadership in safe drone operations at airports.

Wider business opportunities from accommodating drone flights will follow once UASs enter the core business of air transport. Several drone and aircraft manufacturers (Singular, Nautilus, Airbus, Boeing) are currently developing prototypes that seek to establish the right balance of technical features necessary to achieve successful roll-out. By laying the ground through preparatory work today, airports and their partners will be in a position to reap the benefits of these new markets in the future. Otherwise airports risk facing the challenge of new entrants to potentially lucrative new and changing markets.

Addressing the need for smart regulation

To benefit from drones airports need to prepare operationally. Concepts that detail how to integrate drones in busy airfields are starting to be developed and will require joint efforts from airports, ANSPs and authorities. Operating drones safely at airports will not be without pitfalls: applying outmoded regulatory thinking in this area could make drone operations impractical and unattractive. Likewise, any operational concept or regulation that cuts off precious capacity from manned aviation would be problematic. The wider drone economy now needs a clear rulebook for traffic management and safe operations. EU Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc has committed to deliver this in the EU Aviation Strategy she launched in December 2015, in which the need for well-calibrated regulation of drones features prominently.

With the political agreement on the new EASA Regulation and the endorsement of the Helsinki Declaration by the aviation community late last year, the prospects for the EU’s rulebook on the use of drones have gathered further momentum.

Olivier Jankovec, Director General ACI EUROPE commented “The airport industry is embracing innovation and we are excited about the potential opportunities that drone technology presents, in particular in relation to infrastructure maintenance and operational efficiency. That said, the safety and security issues concerning the use of drones in and around airports are increasingly well-documented – underlining the urgent need for effective answers from authorities and regulators.”

EASA’s recent opinion on drones, envisages so-called “standard scenarios” which would be welcomed by airports and drone operators.

Ultimately a lot will turn on how soon a new regulatory and operational framework can be put in place for drones in Europe. To lay the ground for the safe and full deployment of drones inside and outside airports, we will need a risk-based regulation complemented by modern, digital traffic management. Simply treating drones as manned aircraft would only end up placing limits on drones, conventional aviation, or probably both. Simplifying and automating traffic management will make the most out of limited ground and air capacities boosting aviation as a whole. The U-Space concept currently being pursued by SESAR hand-in-hand with national authorities requires active participation from the airport community. That is the best way to ensure that the integration of UAS technology into the controlled airspace takes into consideration the airport industry’s concerns and interests. The opportunities are waiting to be seized, but the clock is ticking.

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