Drones, airports and traveler safety

February 24, 2016 Mark Dauner

Just a few years ago, movies and tv shows that portrayed unmanned “drones” flying around cities, circling and hovering around buildings and “keeping a watchful eye” on everything below it, was science fiction. That day is now over. Drones are here, and they’re quickly becoming a part of everyday life. Scientists and engineers use drones for measuring, monitoring and surveying the areas that they are studying. Real estate agents use drones to take aerial photographs of the homes they’re listing. We’ve even seen drones used in firefighting – particularly for getting a bird’s eye view of wildfire spread without putting pilots and photographers in danger. I could go on and on, but there are more and more really cool, legitimate applications for drone technology every day – and, of course, just as many illegitimate ones. Personal drone use is on the rise as well, and the FAA estimated that as many as 1 million drones may have been sold over the holidays.

Photo by Richard Unten - Used under creative commons license https://flic.kr/p/fF81HV

As more and more individuals and companies find application and value in deploying drones into the skies above us, the already busy sky due to traditional aircraft will get even more congested. In addition, drone pilots don’t generally file flight plans ahead of their flights and they aren’t necessarily privy to the flight plans of other aircraft in the area. There are legitimate safety concerns for travelers and there have been a number of reported sightings of drone activity near airports around the world in recent years.

B4UFLY-Boston-Logan-Drone-Map-FAAParticularly in a metropolitan area such as Boston, in which Logan International Airport is located very close to the commercial center of the city as well as to residential neighborhoods, drones can be a significant safety issue. “Everyone at Logan is concerned about drone use near airports — which is illegal,” Massport spokesperson Matthew Brelis told the Boston Globe in December. “Drones represent a hazard to aviation the same way that birds do. Depending on the size of the drone or bird, they can pose a significant risk to flight.”

Should travelers be concerned about unmanned aircraft as they prepare to board a flight for their next business trip? The answer seems to be that, at this point, there is no more reason for concern about drones than there should be about other potential external flight risks such as bird strikes and laser pointers, and the government is working as quickly as it can to stay ahead of the game. The FAA is taking this very seriously and has imposed a number of rules for the operation of drones, particularly with regard to how they are treated – not as toys or tools – but as aircraft. Drones may not fly within 5 miles of an airport without notification and permission of the airport and air traffic control. Beginning last December, operators of small unmanned “drone” aircraft are required to register with the government.

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely.”

The FAA has also released a location-aware mobile app called B4UFLY that gives drone operators information on restrictions and requirements for the airspace in the area that they want to fly. Massport has also published a page on their website with FAQs and information for drone flyers – including the harsh penalties that can be levied for anyone who operates a drone within airport space – that includes civil penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties including fines up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment.

Although I’ve focused on Boston for this article, it’s important to note that airports around the world are also placing great emphasis on ensuring traveler safety with regard to drones.

Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta and most other US airports are working with the FAA and local law enforcement to develop and enforce policies with regard to drone activity. Worldwide, cities such as London, Tokyo (where they even have police drones with nets to intercept offending drones!) and Sydney are also restricting drone flight within the flight path of airports. Hopefully through these efforts, travelers can breathe a little easier with regard to drone activity on both ends of their journey.

Drone photograph by Richard Unten – Used under creative commons license. 




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