Just a few years ago, drones were the preserve of a few hobbyists in the park. How things have changed. From helping farmers with agricultural surveys to getting that perfect shot for amateur photographers, drones are starting to influence the way we work and play. Dozens of industries use the technology in their businesses, while millions of enthusiasts have found a new past-time. According to the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the number of US drone pilots might increase tenfold by 2021. All this is good for business, too. According to retail research firm NPD, drone sales increased by 224% in the year up to April 2016. Analysts predict that the drone market will reach $11 billion in 2020, compared with its current $6 billion.

But if drones are proving irresistible to amateurs and professionals alike, experts have also raised concerns about their use. This is especially true in the aviation industry, where a collision between a drone and another aircraft could be catastrophic. There have already been warning signs. In January 2017, for example, a drone smashed into a passenger aircraft in Mozambique, cracking its nose. This has been supplemented by dozens of near misses. In November 2016, an Airbus A320 approaching Heathrow gained the dubious distinction of almost being hit by two drones at once.

Aviation and drones are not incompatible, though. With a thoughtful approach, they can be integrated into the running of a busy airport – something proved by a team working in the southern US.

Runway success

In a sense, it’s unsurprising that Atlanta International is pioneering bringing drones into the aviation mainstream. The busiest airport on earth, it is under special pressure to keep aircraft coming and going smoothly. There are plenty of everyday tasks that can cause delays, notably runway inspections, which involve checking for cracks or debris on the tarmac.

Before his team had access to drones, even these basic tasks took time, explains Chaim van Prooyen, a project manager at the airport. “We recently did a pavement evaluation, something we have to do every three years,” he says.

“The [process] took about four hours a runway, because the engineers had to go out and inspect each one, on foot and in vehicles. It was a very labour-intensive process.”

Van Prooyen and his team were able to mitigate some of these disruptions, but only by planning well in advance. Even then, flight schedules still took precedence. “Sometimes, when we shut down our 12,000ft runway, we weren’t able to close it for four or five hours, because we had to break up the inspection for international departures,” continues Van Prooyen. “We had to wait, and come back another two hours after.”

Introducing drones has made all this far simpler. Instead of scouring runways by hand, staff can perform checks simply by flying a drone overhead. Apart from saving time – the process now only takes two hours – the drone’s powerful cameras beam the images to the cloud, where they can be analysed quickly. This is complemented by orthomosaic and contorting software, which allows staff to examine the runway in 3D. “Our [imaging] is greatly improved, now that we have actual imaging that we can overlay with the drawings,” says Van Prooyen.

“We no longer just rely on the notes and photos that [the engineers] take from the ground. Rather, we have a complete overview of the runway.”

We recently did a pavement evaluation, something we have to do every three years. The [process] took about four hours a runway, because the engineers had to go out and inspect each one.

Not that the airport was able to get the drones flying overnight. Given past incidents – near misses with commercial aircraft in US airspace rose by 46% in 2016 – the FAA was understandably cautious about letting the technology loose.

But by cooperating closely with the organisation, Hartsfield-Jackson managed to work past its concerns. “We collaborated with [the FAA] throughout the entire process and fulfilled all of its requirements,” says Andrew Gobeil, from Atlanta International’s office of policy and communication. “For example, pilots in control of the drone have to remain in constant contact with the [air traffic control] tower, just like every other approaching pilot.”

The FAA stipulated other safety measures too. “Under the new FAA standards, you have to take a thorough examination [to fly drones],” says Van Prooyen. “If you fly under certain conditions – over people or at night, for example – you need to get additional waivers, for which you need additional training.”

Safety first

Flying the drone on autopilot requires a further level of training. “Our first priority at Hartsfield-Jackson is to provide a safe transport hub for our passengers,” emphasises Gobeil.

“We take that very seriously: we’ll work with the FAA and with other stakeholders, to ensure that safety is [guaranteed].”

At the same time, Gobeil continues, these experiences mean further investment in drone technology should be easier later. “When we need to go through this again, we’ll go through the paperwork required, but, because of our experience with previous events and efforts, [the process] will be far more streamlined.”

Though Hartsfield-Jackson was able to prove the drones’ safety to the FAA, it still faces some internal criticism. “Not everyone – especially at the airport – are in favour of the drones,” admits Van Prooyen. “A lot of our work involves educating employees, and ensuring that using drones will be safe. We don’t just go ahead immediately.”

Gobeil agrees, adding that changing attitudes is partly just a waiting game. “We want to make sure that [staff] are comfortable with the drones,” he says. “Through repetition, there comes a degree of comfort.”

Droning on

Apart from using drones to check their runways, Hartsfield-Jackson has started adapting the technology to other uses. The airport is currently in the middle of ‘ATL Next’, a multimillion-dollar venture that modernises everything from the terminals to the roadways.

Drones have a big role to play in the scheme, says Gobeil. “The whole project is quite involved,” he says with a laugh. “One of the most recent things we did was to rebuild a parking structure [with the help of drones].”

Instead of painstakingly examining each floor – and bothering drivers in the process – engineers used the drones’ 3D-imaging technology to take detailed shots of several levels at once.

Hartsfield-Jackson is also moving towards using drones to check planes for issues before they take off. “We are looking into that, but it’s not been approved yet,” says Van Prooyen.

“It’s still being studied by the FAA up in Washington DC. This isn’t directly sponsored by the airport; it’ll be sponsored by the airlines.

“But it is something that we are working on very closely with airlines, as it still has an effect on the running of the airport.”

With these successes under their belt, it makes sense that airport officials are looking at other potential possibilities. “We could perhaps start using drones at night, and as security during the day in some of the remote parts of the airfield, [rather] than sending someone out,” says Gobeil.

“There may also be a possibility that we could use it in wildlife mitigation. This mainly involves dispersing bird activity on runways.”

We recognise that it’s a new wave and people are just getting their hands on the technology. But while it’s exciting, we’re also asking what benefit do we really get from using a drone?

Despite these opportunities, Van Prooyen and Gobeil are keen to emphasise that drones are not a catch-all solution. “We recognise that it’s a new wave and that people are just getting their hands on the technology,” Van Prooyen says.

“But while it’s exciting, we’re also asking what benefit do we really get from using a drone? We’ve shied away from a project if it’s just a PR thing. We’ve really wanted to examine what the airport gets out of [this].”

“There are certainly times when using the drones is not necessarily so beneficial,” Van Prooyen continues. “For example, when you’re doing a foreign object debris inspection on a runway, it’s not really useful [to use drones] because you essentially double your time on the runway.

“You’re first inspecting it with a drone, and then you’d still need to get back out there and remove the debris.”

A bright future

Gobeil agrees, saying that drones need to “complement” staff, not replace them. “We certainly won’t use a drone simply because we have it. If it’s going to be beneficial for whatever operation it’s designed for, then yes, we’ll use it. But there are other methods around that save time, effort or money as well.”

Balancing new drone technology with traditional practices is likely to be incredibly important for airports. After all, the FAA has already ratified more than 500 commercial drone operations around many US airports. Either way, it seems that drones will remain a fixture on the tarmac far into the future.