Huntsville International Airport chosen to test new drone technology

Mar. 19—The Federal Aviation Administration wants to protect commercial aircraft from the hazards of drones and is using Huntsville International Airport as one of five airports in a national study on preventing unmanned aircraft systems from entering protected airspace.

At least one drone manufacturer already has technology installed to stop them flying in restricted areas at airports.

Timothy Daniell of Daniell Drone Photography and Media is Huntsville’s owner. He stated that there are two main reasons why drones cannot be allowed to use airport airspace.

He said that a drone could cause serious damage to an airplane and possibly even death. “Just as a nest of birds flying into a engine, you don’t want to be in an airplane hitting a 4-pound drone at 30 mph. It’s like hitting a brick in a wall.

Daniell stated that another reason is the FAA tower not communicating with drones.

He said that all the aircraft need to be in contact with the FAA towers. “The tower doesn’t need to be in touch with all commercial drone operators the same way they need to contact people landing on their airstrips.”

Dan Pierce is a senior pilot for enrGies out of Huntsville. He said drones — or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — made by DJI have software that prevents operation in no-drone zones. Pierce indicated that the restricted zone extends 5 miles from the airport.

A demonstration of UAS was held at Huntsville International Airport Thursday. The drone flew in restricted airspace. Pierce piloted the drone and stated that all DJI products now have GPS.

He explained that DJI software is able to recognize we’re currently in controlled airspace. You won’t be able to power up your aircraft or take off if you don’t possess the appropriate unlocking license.

Ryan Gardner, Huntsville International’s senior operations manager, stated that the software was for safety.

He said that if you are looking to purchase a DJI product, or something commercially available to you, there might be technology in that drone that will keep you from going to places you shouldn’t be. It’s going keep you safe, and it’s going keep everyone else safe.”

Gardner stated it is a valuable piece in technology.

He stated, “Rather than you trying to read the rules and interpret what it said, what I could and couldn’t do and having that real-time, that system tells me, ‘Oh, my place is either where I should fly or where I shouldn’t.

In 2021, there were 398 sightings of drones in restricted areas in the U.S. and 1,820 in 2022. According to the FAA, it receives over 100 reports per month.

In 2018, the runway at Gatwick Airport was shut down by a drone flying close to it. The runway was closed for six hours, then reopened after another drone was found. The incident resulted in the arrest of a man and woman. However, approximately 110,000 passengers were affected and 760 flights were also affected.

Gardner stated that “Gatwick (England) is an example of something that has occurred in the past, and it tends not to happen where people want this (drone technology to disrupt flight operations,”

He stated that the goal of commercial aviation is to “allow airports and other to be able see those threats better, and better deal with them in a case by case basis.”

In 2018, in Wisconsin, a pilot flying in the Mitchell International Airport airspace reported that a drone was flying near his window at around 5,000 feet. The same incident occurred at the Mitchell International Airport in 2017. A Southwest pilot reported seeing a drone as they lined up for final approach.

Huntsville International said in a news release that “in anticipation of the increased use of drones for recreation, business and possibly more nefarious purposes, Congress has required the FAA to test and evaluate technologies that can detect — and if necessary, mitigate — potential risks to air fields posed by drones.”

The airport is currently testing whether drones can activate or deactivate in its airspace.

Section 383, which is the Federal Aviation Administration’s UAS Detection and Mitigation program, was created in 2021. The Huntsville International study will take 18 months and be completed in September. It will take place within a 5-mile radius from Huntsville International.

“The program’s purpose is to examine… how technologies can see the UAS out there in the community, whether it’s authorized.

Aerospace Research Central published 2017 research at Virginia Tech which found that “UAS pose a new danger to the established airspace.”

Researchers at Virginia Tech compared the potential damage to engines from drone ingestion to that caused by bird ingestion. They found that the computational models predicted fan blades with high levels of injury after the drone struck. These predictions were more accurate than those made for the bird surrogate. The orientation of the drone’s contact with the fan blade determines how many fan blades are impacted.

Gardner indicated that it is simple to purchase a drone for a low price. Gardner said that anyone who is not familiar with an airport could want to fly their drone, regardless of whether it has been authorized or denied.

Gardner stated that not only are airports serviced with these types of operators but there may be someone who wants to do some harm by using a UAS. “It is possible to detect all systems, and then think through whether this is an authorized or unauthorized event. We may need to take action to correct the unauthorized event.

Gardner stated that an unintentional entry into an unauthorized airspace can often cause an airport to be damaged. Gardner said that there could be others who want to disrupt the airport.

Gardner said, “If something isn’t supposed be in the area we want to make sure everyone’s aware and then we can deconflict operation from there whether it’s closing down services, or rerouting airplanes.” Awareness is crucial. Everybody must be aware that there are hazards out there. What can we do to mitigate them?

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