Think About It

Greg Kelly

It was early July 2014, when I received word that a commercial aircraft carrying more than 140 passengers experienced a close encounter with a UAS (unmanned aircraft system) on final approach to our airport. While I was already plugged in to the UAS issues that were growing around the country, this hit home and got my full attention. It was around that time that an increasing number of aircraft encounters with UAS in the vicinity of major airports were being reported around the country. You may recall a series of drone sightings by air carriers in the New York City airspace that got a lot of national news attention. Headlines in major newspapers read: "Increase in Drones Spotted Near Aircraft;" "Near Collisions Between Drones, Airliners Surge, New FAA Report Shows;" "FAA Official: Drone, Jetliner Nearly Collide Over Florida" and "Close Encounters on Rise as Small Drones Gain in Popularity."

This caused great concern in our industry and I am sure that every airport manager in the country engaged in some kind of public relations initiative geared toward getting the word out about drone/UAS safety around airports. We all remember "Know Before You Fly," FAA's UAS public awareness campaign in late 2014. This was the 5-mile, 400-foot, line-of-sight, get-permission program. 

The number of encounters continued to increase in 2015, and calls for more immediate action from Congress, the airlines and the public were beginning to be part of the weekly news cycle. For its part, Congress had already passed legislation as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, directing the FAA to "accelerate safely the integration by Sept. 30, 2015, of Civil UAS in the national airspace system." But in early 2015 there was a growing frequency of UAS/airline encounters, which appeared to be moving the discussion to potentially more restrictive legislation.

Greg Kelly, A.A.E, is executive director at Savannah/Hilton Head International and executive director of the Savannah Airport Commission. In addition, he serves on the board of directors for Airports Council International - North America, the Southeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives and the Small Airports Committee for Airports Council International. Kelly is also a primary coordinator for the Southeast Airports Disaster Operations Group.

At the time, I was as concerned as anyone else, but I remember thinking that while the UAS issue was a growing and very serious safety concern, the systems clearly had the potential to be a real asset to airport operators as the technology evolved. I became concerned that the ongoing and growing push for more UAS regulations and restrictions could potentially result in short-sighted actions that would adversely impact, if not eliminate, the possibility of airport operators using drones. While I was as determined as everyone else to prevent UAS conflicts with aircraft, I became equally determined to make sure the door remained open for airport operators to use drones in the future.

Working with Woodie Woodward of Woodward & Associates, we were able to schedule a series of meetings with various FAA officials involved in UAS integration and safety to present our case. We made the case for a variety of uses for drones at airports: day/night perimeter checks; runway light and surface checks; monitoring, assessing and deterring wildlife hazards; and enhancing operators' ability to monitor projects and manage incidents. Instead of pushback, the FAA was open to and interested in the discussion. In fact, we are now working toward implementing a program to test several of these scenarios at our airport. Our original thought was to purchase our own UAS platform and apply for our own permit; but it was suggested that we use an existing permitted UAS operator. We are now about to enter an agreement with Woolpert so we can begin our program.

Other airports see the same potential and are working toward the same objective. It is also good to see that both Airports Council International - North America and the American Association of Airport Executives have committees in place that are working with the FAA and other groups to integrate UAS operation on and around airports, safely. As we have seen with Uber and Lyft, the transportation network companies have and are integrating into the fabric of airports. There is no doubt that unmanned aircraft systems will also become part of the fabric at our airports. As such, there are opportunities for us to use them safely to enhance security, safety and other operational efforts in our day-to-day operations.

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