fly near airports airplane drone

Drones shouldn’t fly near airports — unless it’s at these 5 chosen ones

In most cases, you don’t want to see a drone flying anywhere close to an airport. But at these five airports around the U.S., drones are supposed to fly near airports. In a controlled manner, of course.

The Federal Aviation Administration this week announced that five airports would serve as testing environments to study technologies and other systems that could both detect and mitigate risks of drones flying too close to manned aircraft.

The five airports are:

  • Atlantic City International Airport in Atlantic City, New Jersey
  • Syracuse Hancock International Airport in Syracuse, New York
  • Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, Ohio
  • Huntsville International Airport in Huntsville, Alabama
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, Washington

Actual testing to allow drones to fly near airports is set to begin later in 2021 and run through 2023. Among the goals of the research is to ideally implement new technologies that could prevent close encounters or collisions with drones that fly near airports — ultimately creating standards for drone detection and mitigation at airports nationwide. The FAA says that researchers plan to test or evaluate at least 10 different technologies or systems. Those were chosen out of a request made by the FAA last summer soliciting manufacturers, vendors and integrators of drone detection and mitigation technology to be a part of this research.

Those five host airports were chosen in particular because they meet “FAA requirements for diverse testing environments and represent airport operating conditions found across the United States.” It’s all a part of the FAA’s Airport Unmanned Aircraft Systems Detection and Mitigation Research Program, established under the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which requires that the FAA “ensure that technologies used to detect or mitigate potential risks posed by unmanned aircraft do not interfere with safe airport operations.”

Typically, drones cannot legally fly near airports. That’s because drone operate in Class B or C airspace (which tends to be the airspace around most airports) without permission, such as a LAANC authorization waiver.

Read more: How to fly your drone near airports (legally)

To take a step further, consumer-focused drone companies like DJI have even put in limitations in their software through GEO, which prevents pilots from taking off in controlled airspace, such as near airports, unless there’s a manual override.

This week’s news is an important step for the drone industry, which has been plagued by the (somewhat-justified) fear of drones colliding with aircraft. A viral video of a drone flying near a Frontier airline in Vegas from 2018 was one of the earliest causes of concern, and even drone industry advocates called for the FAA to find the pilot and take action. 2018 saw an unprecedented airport shutdown at London’s Gatwick airport over suspicions that a rogue drone was flying near the airport in the days ahead of Christmas, forcing planes to stay grounded or land elsewhere (and causing massive holiday travel disruptions).

Read more: Air traffic controller involved with Gatwick drone incident speaks out

Beyond research with those 5 airports, the FAA has also granted money to colleges and universities to conduct their own research around how drones can (or can’t) fly near airports.

Also in 2020, the FAA granted funding to the following schools for those research efforts:

  • 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
Counter-drone market set to be worth $6.6 billion by 2024

It’s important to note that the FAA has explicitly said it does not support the use of counter-drone systems by any entities other than federal departments with explicit statutory authority to use this technology, including requirements for extensive coordination with the FAA to ensure safety risks are mitigated. Still, research from the end of 2020 indicates the counter-drone market could be worth $6.6 billion by 2024. That includes companies like San Francisco-based anti-drone technology startup Dedrone, which announced in late 2020 that it received $12.1 million in a funding round led by European technology investor TempoCap. 

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