An airport is the safest place to fly a drone. Surely that statement would strike anyone in aviation as counterintuitive, to put it mildly. After all, sightings of unauthorized Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) flying near airports already amount to an unsettling problem: Reports of possible drone sightings to FAA air traffic facilities rose to 1,274 incidents in 2016, up from 874 the year before, according to the FAA. It is a global problem as well. Take what happened this past November at Congonhas in São Paulo. After a pilot reported seeing an unidentified drone circling above one of the runways, authorities shut down operations for more than two hours. Hundreds of passengers were stranded as airlines cancelled flights into and out of the city. These precautions were perfectly rational: The mere thought of UAS straying over runways tends to evoke images of catastrophe—drones being sucked into jet engines, snarled in helicopter rotors or plastered onto aircraft windshields, to name just a few of the grim possibilities.
Prudence about such dangers is precisely why federal officials, as part of the congressionally mandated integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS), moved to ban drone flights within five miles of any airport. Ironically, however, a strong argument can be made that the object of these concerns—UAS—can actually be a powerful tool to improve the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of U.S. airport operations in the years ahead.
To be clear, the dangers posed by the unauthorized use of drones—whether in the hands of terrorists or hobbyists—over American airports are unmistakable and require vigilance. However, another scenario has received scant attention despite its potential upside: namely, the tightly controlled and narrowly defined operation of UAS to execute critical tasks such as Foreign Object Debris (FOD) inspections; “eye-in-the-sky” security flyovers; fuselage inspections; wildlife detection/deterrence, and more.
If you think about it, potentially the safest airspace in the world is over U.S. airports. After all, no part of the NAS is as tightly controlled and monitored. Consider for a moment the broad reach of the FAA. Its mandate includes the vast majority of U.S. airspace—from the ground up, coast-to-coast—with generalized preemption of state and local controls by decree of the U.S. Supreme Court. Under Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, moreover, the FAA already regulates UAS and has set initial maximums for altitude (400 feet), weight (55 pounds), airspeed (100 mph) and other aspects of legally authorized UAS operation.
The FAA’s reach likewise extends to the airport environment itself, where most air traffic controllers are FAA employees and even those working for the Contract Tower Program must follow FAA procedures, subject to monitoring and surveillance. With the exception of uncontrolled airports that lack towers, no aircraft uses a runway and nothing stirs on airport movement surfaces without FAA sanction.
If the FAA shuts down all operations, in other words, the airport is essentially on lockdown—conditions in which it is perfectly safe for trained, monitored and authorized operators to fly UAS in service of defined tasks. Pausing activity in this way would hardly be unprecedented: Airports and the FAA routinely work together to put a temporary halt to operations, either as part of existing inspection schedules or for emergency response.