State airports working to integrate unmanned aircraft flights

Photo/Dan Joling/AP

Alaska’s airports are preparing for aircraft of the unmanned variety.

How the two interact will go a long way towards determining how unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, assimilate to the state’s aviation-heavy culture.

Jeff Roach, the Northern Region Planning Manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said the state is evaluating how to manage UAS around state-owned airports.

The State of Alaska owns 247 rural airports across the state in addition to the Alaska International Airport System.

Safety — collision avoidance — is the utmost priority, but Roach said the state is not particularly worried about the UAS itself.

“Although we are concerned about where the unmanned aircraft is located in our operating environment, our primary concern is the pilot,” of the UAS, he said.

Roach spoke about the state’s work at the annual Alaska UAS Interest Group meeting in Fairbanks earlier this month.

Airport managers do concern themselves with the specific location of the UAS when it is departing and landing or being recovered, according to Roach.

While the popularity of unmanned aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, is skyrocketing as technology makes them smaller, less expensive and easier to use, regulations governing their use are well behind.

The Federal Aviation Administration in February released its first set of draft rules for UAS, which are going through the public review process. Currently the FAA is allowing commercial operations of small UAS on a case-by-case basis, based on the draft regulations.

UAS operators, or pilots, must pass knowledge-based requirements, but do not take an active flight test under the draft rule.

The proposed Section 333 UAS operating rules do call for a general five-mile “drone free” halo around airports, but the draft also proposes shrinking that radius to three or two miles depending on air traffic control capabilities at a given airport.

Noncommercial personal UAS flights are more loosely regulated and violations are also harder to enforce, those in the industry note.

The Defense Department keeps its unmanned flights five miles away from fixed-base operations and flights below 700 feet within 10 miles of an airport.

Roach said the State of Alaska is concerning itself with unmanned aircraft, despite the FAA regulating most national airspace, because of money it gets from the federal government.

This fiscal year, Alaska is set to receive more than $137 million in Airport Improvement Program funding from the FAA. That money comes with grant assurance responsibility, which includes safe control of the airspace directly above and adjacent to an airport, Roach said.

He likened the situation with potential unsafe UAS operations near a state airport to birds interfering or colliding with traditional aircraft. It is the airport operator’s responsibility to mitigate the bird hazard, he said.

“We are looking at ways that we can integrate unmanned aircraft system operations into our airports operations just like the FAA is looking at ways to integrate operations into the national airspace,” Roach said.

In its formal public comment on the draft Section 333 rule, the Alaska Air Carriers Association requested the 500 feet above ground limit for general small UAS operations proposed by the FAA be lowered to accommodate carriers that routinely fly below 500 feet for numerous reasons.

Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMs, to affected airports should also be incorporated as part of standard, daily pre-flight UAS procedures, according to the Air Carriers Association.

However, Alaska Air Carriers Executive Director Jane Dale said the member group of Alaska’s aviation industry supports the UAS industry and expects unmanned businesses to become members as that industry grows.

The state Airports Division, with the help of staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for UAS Integration, is in the process of developing a standard form for requesting to use an airport facility for UAS work. Such requests are handled individually now, Roach  said.

UAS pilots need a signed agreement with the airport operator in question to fly within five miles of an airport, according to Roach.

Alaska airport officials also hope to build relationships with frequent UAS fliers similar to those they have with familiar pilots. This will help with communication, and “the bottom line is we want to communicate,” he said. “We want to communicate for safety’s sake.”

Forming a healthy relationship with airport officials and the pilots that fly at a nearby airport should help a UAS operator better understand standard flight patterns and overall be more aware of potential hazards.

That communication should extend to notifying the airport operator in addition to the control tower or flight service station prior to executing an approved UAS flight within five miles of an airport, Roach said, a way to proof against missed communication at the airport.

DOT is also working to get the state involved in the FAA’s approval of UAS flights through the Certificate of Authorization, or COA, process, which certifies the unmanned aircraft and the pilot as safe to fly in a given area.

Roach said the state has a great relationship with the UAF Unmanned Aircraft Center, but noted that the university operates with COAs and FAA exemptions that airport personnel are sometimes unaware of.

Roach noted a COA the UAF unmanned aircraft test range has for an area surrounding the Circle airport, which the state did not know about until flights were ready to happen.

UAF center director Marty Rogers said the Circle instance was a mistake on the university’s part for not reaching out to the nearby airport, but one that was turned positive by closing an open loop in communication between all the users of the airspace.

“In Alaska, there’s going to be more and more of this,” Rogers said.

10/10/2016 - 10:06am