How We Got Permission to Fly Drones At the Busiest Airport in the World
In 2015, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport became the first airport in the world to exceed 100 million annual passengers, and it has continued to grow since then, pushing current airport infrastructure to its limits. So the City of Atlanta decided to expand the airport and commissioned Atkins, a leading design and engineering firm, to help with this, starting with the demolition and rebuilding of the present-day North and South parking garage and passenger drop off to facilitate the construction of a new airport hotel.
Doing new construction on such a busy airport is a challenge. Safety is always everyone’s number one priority, but following right behind safety, the experience of passengers must be at the forefront of everyone’s minds because every small inconvenience can disrupt daily airport operations and cause delays. Planning is key and in this scale it is best done in digital models, so that every stakeholder has access to the same, accurate information. The quickest and safest way to capture the existing site conditions is to fly a drone over the area of interest and process the data to high definition maps and 3D point clouds.
“At Atkins we were particularly interested in leveraging 3DR’s technology, because it allowed us to collect a great amount of accurate project data quickly, with no disruption to airport users.” — Chris Harman, Atkins Sr. Project Engineer
Getting permission to fly at an airport is hard
Now Atkins faced a challenge. Getting permission to fly drones on an international airport is difficult. The numerous illegal drone flights close to airports and planes, that we all read about in the news, are not only dangerous and irresponsible, they also make it harder for professionals to use drones for work. This is when Atkins reached out to Autodesk and 3DR, who together through Autodesk’s UAV Lighthouse Program, have made clear the unique business value of commercial drones in construction. Because the site was in the controlled airspace of an international airport, the 3DR team used the new FAA online portal to obtain the authorization for the flight.
As part of the airspace authorization process, 3DR and Atkins were able to demonstrate to the FAA that an operation in such a critical location between runways could be performed safely using Site Scan, 3DR’s autonomous aerial data capture platform. After coordinating with the ATL air traffic control tower, the FAA granted airspace authorization enabling this aerial data capture on Atkins’ construction site. Part of the requirement for the authorization was that the flight team was in radio contact with the ATL control tower at all times during the flight and performed all operations under the control tower’s authority.
Accurate drone data to help build the busiest airport in the world
On January 10th, 2017, the team legally and safely flew the Site Scan drone in the Class B airspace over the international airport area. This was the first such operation under the new Part 107 regulation. The team performed a total of 7 flights, capturing over 700 nadir and oblique images, and covering an area of 40 acres. The pictures were then uploaded to the 3DR cloud where they are automatically processed into accurate 2D orthomosaics and 3D point clouds.
The models will be used by Atkins to plan the demolition process and organize the operations during construction so to minimize the negative effects on the airport’s daily activities. In addition, the 3D point clouds will be used to work on the preliminary design phase together with the architects.
How to study and pass the Part 107 remote pilot certificate
The location of this construction site between the ATL Airport runways was an exception. For the large majority of construction sites, however, no authorization is needed and the process is as easy as taking the new Part 107 Remote Pilot test. The new Part 107 regulation, enacted by the FAA in August 2016, greatly lowered the barrier to entry for flying drones to complete commercial work. The written test is a mix of common sense and aeronautical questions designed to ensure everyone’s safety and can be taken at selected FAA approved test centers. To help future remote operators to study, 3DR has created a set of learning resources and practice tests available for free at 3dr.com/faa.