Huntsville International Airport chosen for new drone technology testing

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 has already begun equipping its products with technology that stops them from flying in the no-drone zone at airports.

Timothy Daniell, owner of Daniell Drone Photography and Media in Huntsville, said there are two main reasons airport airspace is unauthorized for drones.

"A drone could cause substantial damage to an aircraft, possible loss of life," he said. "Just like a nest of birds flying into an engine, if you are in an airplane, you do not want to be hitting a 4-pound drone at 300 mph; you don't want to be hitting a brick in the air."

Daniell said another big reason is that the airports do not want the FAA tower communicating with drones.

"All the aircraft have to be in communications with the FAA towers," he said. "That tower does not need to be in contact with all the commercial drone operators like they need to be in contact with the people that are landing on their airstrips."

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

Huntsville International Airport held a UAS demonstration Thursday for the media in which a drone flew into restricted airspace. The drone was manned by Pierce who said all the latest DJI products have GPS installed.

"The DJI software has it built in where it recognizes we're in a controlled air space right now," he said. "If you don't have the proper unlocking license to allow your aircraft to fly in this area, it won't let you power up the aircraft and take off here."

Ryan Gardner, senior operations manager at Huntsville International, said the software is for safety.

"If you're going out to buy a DJI product or something that is easily commercially available, there may already be technology within that drone to keep you out of areas that you shouldn't already be," he said. "It's going to keep you safe and it's, in turn, going to keep everyone else safe."

Gardner said it is a valuable piece of technology.

"Instead of you looking at the rules and trying to interpret what it says, what I can and can't do, having that real time, that system tells you, 'Oh, I'm either in a place where I should fly or a place I shouldn't,'" he said.

There were 398 drone sightings in restricted no-drone zones in the U.S. in 2021 and 1,820 sightings in 2022. The FAA said it now receives more than 100 reports each month.

At Gatwick Airport in 2018 the runway shut down due to a drone flying near the runway. It was shut down for six hours before reopening and then shut down again when another drone was spotted. A man and woman were arrested in connection with the incident and later released but about 110,000 passengers and 760 flights were affected.

"Gatwick, England, is one that has happened in the past and it tends to happen where people want to use this (drone) technology to interrupt flight operations," Gardner said.

He said the goal of the commercial aviation industry is "to allow airports and others to be able to see those threats better and better deal with them on a case-by-case basis."

In Wisconsin in 2018, a pilot flying his personal aircraft in the Mitchell International Airport airspace reported to the tower that there was a drone flying outside of his window at about 5,000 feet. In 2017, also at the Mitchell International Airport, a Southwest pilot reported a drone near the runway while they were lining 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 testing to see if drones will activate or deactivate within its airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration's UAS Detection and Mitigation system is called Section 383, and the study that includes Huntsville International began in 2021, will last 18 months, and will be complete in September. It is taking place within a 5-mile radius of Huntsville International.

"The intent of the program itself is to see ... how can the technologies see the UAS that are out there in the community whether it's authorized or not authorized."

Studies at Virginia Tech published in 2017 by Aerospace Research Central found "UAS present a new risk to the established airspace."

The Virginia Tech researchers looked at potential damage to engines after drone ingestion compared to bird ingestion and found that "due to the lumped mass of the drone's internal battery and payload, the computational models predicted highly compromised fan blades after drone impact, compared to those of the corresponding bird surrogate. ... Additionally, it was discovered that the number of impacted fan blades is dependent on the orientation of the drone at contact with respect to the fan blade."

Gardner said it is easy for someone to purchase an inexpensive drone. He said there is a potential for anyone unfamiliar with the airport to want to fly their drone without knowing where it would be authorized or unauthorized.

"Not only are the airports served with those types of operators, but you may have someone that wants to do something, to do harm using a UAS," Gardner said. "Being able to detect all systems and then think through, OK, this is an authorized event, this is an unauthorized event. There may be something we need to do to address the unauthorized event."

Often, Gardner said, an airport could be affected simply by someone who unknowingly entered an unauthorized airspace. However, he said, there may also be people who intend to disrupt the airport.

"If we did see something that's not supposed to be in the area, we want to ensure that everyone's aware of it and then we can deconflict operations from there whether it be closing down services, rerouting aircraft," Gardner said. "Really, the awareness is key. Everyone being aware that there is a hazard out here and what do we do about it from there."

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