The FAA has new plans to combat drones flying near airports

Drones flying near airports has long been a headache for the drone industry, amid fears that drones — which legally should not be flying near airports in most cases — will crash with manned aircraft and lead to a potentially, highly dangerous collision.

The Federal Aviation Administration this month announced that it would be studying at least 10 different drone detection and mitigation systems at airports.

The tests will be conducted under the FAA’s Airport Unmanned Aircraft Systems Detection and Mitigation Research Program, which is expected to begin later this year.

The first set of tests is scheduled to be held at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, which is adjacent to New Jersey’s Atlantic City International Airport. After that, the schedule is largely up in the air, beyond a plan to test at four, TBD different airports in the U.S.

That said, the FAA is interested in working with companies that make drone detection systems. The FAA posted a notice soliciting manufacturers, vendors and integrators of drone detection and mitigation technology to work with them in a research program. The FAA also said they plan to post a notice soliciting airports interested in participating in their test program, presumably to select those four other airports.

The global counter-UAS market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.83% between 2019 to 2024. Companies working in that industry include Dedrone and DroneShield, as well as major aviation players and defense contractors like Raytheon, Boeing and Airbus. And the news that the FAA is pouring more resources into their industry is good news for them.

“The FAA’s RFP is a great step in the right direction for the aviation industry,” said Jackson Markey, an Enterprise Sales Manager at Dedrone. “As airports look to welcome more traffic post-COVID-19 shutdowns, we think it is the perfect time for the FAA to implement airspace security programs, understand their baseline vulnerability to drone activity, and build out their airspace security programs.”

Beyond that, the FAA also is doling out money to American universities specifically to conduct research on “the safety risks and mitigations for UAS operations on and around airports.” The FAA is looking for research universities to use the money to fund expert research on specific use cases.

Here are the schools receiving FAA funding to research drones flying near airports (and how much money they’re receiving):

  • University of Alaska, Fairbanks: $401,999
  • Kansas State University: $220,000
  • New Mexico State University: $320,000
  • University of Alabama, Huntsville: $219,815
  • University of North Dakota: $320,000

Drones typically aren’t supposed to be flying near airports. You can’t fly in Class B or C airspace (which tends to be the airspace around most airports) without permission, such as a LAANC authorization waiver. Companies like DJI have put in limitations in their software through a product they’ve created called GEO, which prevents pilots from taking off in controlled airspace, such as near airports, unless a manual override is done.

The idea of drones flying near airports has long been a headache for both the drone industry and the broader aviation industry as a whole. A viral video of a drone flying near a Frontier airline in Vegas from 2018 had the industry freaking out, and even drone industry advocates called for the FAA to find the pilot and take action. Holiday travelers in the U.K. got hit hard in 2018 due to an unprecedented airport shutdown, all thanks to suspicions that a rogue drone was flying near London’s Gatwick airport in the days ahead of Christmas, forcing planes to stay grounded or land at other airports.

This is far from the first time the U.S. government has invested in anti-drone detection research. The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), which is a United States Department of Defense organization, in 2018 announced that it would parter with Dedrone, which builds drone detection software. In 2017, the the DoD announced that it awarded a $1.5 million contract to San Diego-based startup SkySafe, which can detect and selectively control individual drones, to provide mobile counter-drone systems to Naval Special Warfare units.

The news that the FAA is investing in detection and mitigation solutions to prevent drones flying near airports comes at a time when there are an estimated 1.65 million recreational and commercial drones (PDF) in the active UAS fleet, according to the FAA — a number that is expected to grow to as high as 2.31 million by 2024 (PDF).

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