Give airports funds to manage drone operations: task force

Airports should not be burdened with policing ‘careless, clueless or criminal’ drone users in the absence of a well-funded multi-agency approach.

In its final report on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integration, detection, identification, and mitigation in and around airports, the North American blue ribbon task force brought together a cross-section of stakeholders representing the airport, UAS, and manned aviation communities to refine procedural practices and provide a policy framework to address the timely and critical issue of incursions by unauthorised UAS at North American airports and how best to mitigate this threat.

Jointly commissioned in April 2019 by Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the chief recommendation states that the US Congress should appropriate more funds alongside its Canadian government counterpart to deal with such issues. It also recommends that both legislative bodies should extend UAS interdiction authority to trained state, provincial and local law enforcement agencies.

“Whether the origin of drone activity near airports is careless, clueless or criminal, the escalating frequency of drone-related incidents present a security, operational and economic challenge to North American airports and their surrounding communities,” said Deborah Flint, chief executive officer, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA). “The findings of the Blue Ribbon Task Force provide North American airports with a template for developing a response to drone incidents while providing a voice and representation for airports to the federal entities that control drone regulation. The time has come to take meaningful action on this issue to protect the nation’s travelling public.”

The final report builds on the policy recommendations the task force outlined in its July 2019 interim report, which urged federal aviation agencies to move forward with a remote identification rule. These recommendations, if implemented, would help UAS safety and security move forward in a timely and risk-based fashion, allowing the UAS industry to continue to grow with compliant operations and ensuring airports remain safeguarded from careless, clueless, or criminal operators. In the final report, the task force recommends:

  • Lawmakers should do more to ensure the FAA and Transport Canada are adequately funded to undertake UAS detection in conjunction with airport operators. The final report identifies an unacceptable security gap at many airports across the US and Canada, with no federal role in UAS detection and often no resources for an airport role to engage in UAS detection operations. The task force takes the position that airports should not be burdened with undertaking UAS detection operations but instead, as with many other operations at airports, such as airport security, UAS detection should be a shared responsibility between airports and federal governments.
  • Lawmakers should extend authority to engage in UAS interdiction – kinetic or electronic – to trained law enforcement officials tasked with safeguarding airports and the immediate surrounding areas. The deputation of counter-UAS authority to these officials should begin with a pilot programme overseen by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in the U.S., and DOJ and Public Safety Canada (PSC), in Canada, to establish protocols, training, and practice exercises.

“I am very excited about the new opportunities that commercial UAS applications create for our economy and the value the technology adds to airports; however, the integration of approved operations and detection and mitigation of unapproved UAS must be attentively managed and properly funded and staffed at all levels,” said task force co-chair Michael Huerta, who served as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration from 2011 until 2018.

“In Canada and abroad, government, law enforcement and the aviation industry are working to define policies and regulations that balance the needs of a burgeoning industry with maintaining the safety of our skies. Establishing drone security measures at airports, increasing public awareness of drone regulations and integrating authorised drones into controlled airspace are all important parts of a holistic strategy,” said Neil Wilson, president and chief executive of Nav Canada.

“As the UAS market continues to develop and grow, so do the opportunities for conflict with the airport operations and aviation in general,” said Mark Laroche, president and chief executive of the Ottawa International Airport Authority. “Whether careless or nefarious in nature, airports need a well-defined plan to prepare and respond to all incursions and we look forward to working with the federal government and other partners in aviation to build upon the excellent work already undertaken and to put the task force’s playbook into meaningful practice in Canada.”

ACI-NA president and chief executive Kevin Burke lauded the task force’s airport playbook. “When an unauthorised UAS is spotted on an approach pathway or over a runway, what is an airport to do? The playbook put forward by the Task Force represents a necessary component to determining the threat level, the appropriate responses, and ensuring there is proper communication with all relevant stakeholders in a timely fashion. This will be an essential tool for airports to develop or refine their response protocols,” he said.

After discussions with dozens of airport operators in the US and Canada, the task force noted that most do not have a comprehensive plan to deal with errant UAS – whether careless, clueless, or criminal. Further, most airports do not have a plan for integrating compliant UAS operations either. The task force developed guiding principles for airports seeking to write these critically important plans and recommends ways to drill them just as airports would other emergency procedures.

AUVSI president and chief executive Brian Wynne commended the task force for its work seeking to ensure safety and security objectives are met through collaboration between industry and government. “The Blue Ribbon Task Force has provided us with clear steps forward to keep the skies around airports secure while still allowing the burgeoning UAS industry to flourish,” said Wynne. “We look forward to working with policymakers to swiftly implement the task force’s recommendations and help ensure the safety of the airspace for all aircraft – both manned and unmanned.”

The full report can be downloaded here. For more information visit UASmitigationatairports.org.

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