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How airports and the drone industry are teaming up to protect planes

A new system is expected to make it easier for airports to be aware of nearby drones. (David Goldman/Associated Press)
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More than 50 U.S. airports will test a new system to make themselves more aware of drones flying near their runways. Airport executives and the drone industry expect the Digital Notice and Awareness System (D-NAS) to improve safety amid concerns raised by 764 drone sightings near airplanes in 2015.

Drone hobbyists are required to notify airports of their plans when flying within five miles of an airport, but doing so has been a difficult process.

For one, hobbyists have to track down the appropriate phone numbers.

“You don’t want to give out air traffic control’s phone number on a public website for obvious reasons. Well, how are you going to manage that?” said Steve Runge, division manager of the Houston Airport System’s safety and emergency management. “This solves many of the problems that we didn’t know how to solve.”

In some cases no one is even available to speak to at an airport.

“Especially on the eastern seaboard you’re almost always within five miles of an airport no matter where you are. The amount of airports makes notifications very improbable if not impossible,” said Justin Towles, staff vice president of regulatory and legislative affairs at the American Association of Airport Executives. “This system will allow that to become much easier and streamlined.”

Drone operators using D-NAS will input the radius of their flight and how long they intend to fly using apps from drone manufacturers such as DJI, 3DRobotics and Yuneec, or the websites AirMap and some airports. This information will then be sent to operations staff and air traffic control at participating airports. By sending information this way, drone operators will be able to more easily notify these airports of their flight plans.

Proponents of the system believe that by simplifying the process, more drone operators will comply, which will make airports more aware and the skies safer for airline pilots and passengers.

“We think that people generally want to do the right thing, but they may not know what the right thing is,” Runge said. His team jumped at the chance to participate in the pilot program after looking for ways to manage the increasing popularity of drones, like many airports.

Runge said an added benefit of the system will be the ability to see a live map of nearby drone flights, and to track usage over time. He plans to analyze the data and potentially add signs in areas near his airports where drone flights are common. Houston expects to have its system up and running in two weeks.

Down the road, Runge expects to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to deem certain areas around his three airports unsafe to fly drones in at all, most likely the paths where planes take off and approach runways. Runge envisions the system will eventually notify his airport and law enforcement officials automatically if a drone wanders into a forbidden area.

Ben Marcus, chief executive of AirMap, the start-up behind D-NAS, said that it had received near-unanimous interest from airports. There is no charge for drone hobbyists to use the system.

“Our main goal is to enable the future of drones,” Marcus said. “We realize there are many elements, some of which are technology, which will have to be invented in order to facilitate that future.”

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