Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Over the past few years, a growing number of airports have started to integrate small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into their own operating environment for inspections, surveys, and other purposes. Unfortunately, at the same time, airports are having to address operational disruptions caused by negligent and nefarious drone users operating near the airport. Since December 2018, an increasing number of disruptions to operations have occurred because of drones, including at Gatwick, Heathrow, Newark, Dubai, and Frankfurt airports. A 36-hour shutdown at Gatwick resulted in an estimated £15 million impact on the airport. Concerns over safety and potentially significant economic losses are driving high levels of airport engagement.


Industry Growth. The UAS industry continues to sustain impressive growth. As of November 2019, the FAA has certified more than 158,000 remote pilots under Part 107. This is an increase from July 2018 when there were just over 100,000 remote pilots. There are also currently nearly 1.5 million drones registered with the FAA, with the largest increase coming in the commercial drone market where registrations are up from 373,000 to 416,000 between May and November 2019.

Creating Airport UAS Programs. An increasing number of airports are adopting small UAS as a means of streamlining operations and reducing costs. However, airports are still having to navigate a complex FAA approval process in order to develop internal operating procedures and obtain the necessary airspace authorizations. As the use cases for UAS expand, these challenges will only continue to grow.

Responding to Airport Drone Threats. AAAE continues to engage with FAA, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and key stakeholders on developing coordinated and collaborative processes for how airports and their partners respond to drone sightings or alerts from UAS detection systems. In October, the National Security Council officially approved the Unified National-Level Response to Persistent UAS Disruption of Operations at Core 30 Airports Concept of Operations (ConOps). The ConOps designates TSA as the lead federal agency and outlines how an airport can elicit the appropriate federal officials to interdict a drone persistently operating for nefarious purposes. On the local level, TSA’s federal security directors completed tactical response plans (TRPs) for the initial local response to a potential unauthorized UAS disruption. TSA also conducted self-vulnerability assessments focusing on airport security posture, readiness, detection technology deployment and nearby critical infrastructure and counter-UAS capabilities.

Improving Counter-UAS Technology. Pursuant to a mandate in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill, FAA is planning to conduct in-depth testing of counter-UAS systems at five airports starting in 2020. FAA intends to release a solicitation to the public to determine and evaluate which airports and detection systems the agency wants to select for the pilot program. The purpose of the testing is to ultimately develop a set of standards to guide which systems can be safely used in an airport environment. In addition, TSA is establishing a test bed for UAS detection technology at Miami International Airport to test and evaluate technology to detect, identify and track UAS at or near airports.

Allowing Airport Use of Detection Systems. AAAE has been actively engaged with FAA to ensure the agency clearly articulates what authority airports have regarding the use of UAS detection systems, particularly given recent, high-profile disruption events. In May 2019, the FAA released guidance, which stressed the importance of coordinating the use of detection systems with FAA to ensure regulatory and grant assurance compliance. However, questions still remain about the specific process and requirements for ensuring expeditious deployment of such a system if an airport wants to pursue an acquisition.

Implementing the UAS LAANC Service. Since 2017, the FAA has been working to implement its LAANC service, which allows drone users to expeditiously obtain FAA authorization to fly in controlled airspace near airports. While LAANC is not available everywhere, the FAA has so far rolled out the service to about 600 airports, including over 100 with contract towers. The FAA is expected to continue expanding LAANC to additional airports throughout 2020.

New Rules for Recreational UAS Users. The FAA Reauthorization Act, which Congress passed in October 2018, updated the rules governing recreational use of small UAS. In May 2019, the FAA issued a notice implementing many of these new requirements. As a result of the changes, recreational UAS operators are no longer required to notify the airport operator if the user intends to operate within 5 miles of an airport. Users will instead obtain authorization directly from FAA to operate within controlled airspace.

Requiring Remote Identification. Although the UAS Identification (ID) and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee finished its report and recommendations, the FAA has yet to promulgate a proposed rule to require small UAS to equip with remote ID and tracking technology. When implemented, airports will have significantly more ability to address nearby drone threats. The FAA is currently projected to release the proposed rule in early 2020. 

Expanding Small UAS Operations. In response to the UAS industry, the FAA has taken the following actions to expand the types of small UAS operations currently permitted:
o Since 2017, the FAA has focused significant resources in the UAS Integration Pilot Program, which brings private sector entities together with state, local, and tribal governments to evaluate novel operational concepts like package delivery and flying beyond line of sight. Results from the pilot program, which is expected to conclude in 2020, will inform future agency rulemaking efforts.
o In February 2019, the FAA published a proposed rulemaking to allow operations over people and at night. AAAE submitted generally supportive comments in response but urged the agency to first finish its remote ID rulemaking.

AAAE Views

• AAAE has emphasized the need for policies and procedures to mitigate risks posed by UAS in the airport environment. In April 2019, AAAE submitted 13 recommendations to the FAA in response to their solicitation for input on how the agency could address public safety and security challenges created by UAS. The recommendations focused on three general principles:
o Determining roles and responsibilities for managing small UAS risks;
o Increasing coordination, information sharing, and collaboration between FAA, airports, and security partners; and
o Implementing more widespread use of technological solutions to mitigate threats.

• AAAE is working to educate airports on the benefits of using UAS to create efficiencies and reduce costs, while working with FAA to streamline the process for approving their use in the airport environment.

• TSA has indicated that the agency intends to create a qualified products list for certified UAS detection technology that airports can then procure locally. AAAE will continue to work with both TSA and FAA on these issues to create a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities and avoid unfunded and unnecessary mandates on airport operators.

Related Information

• The FAA’s May 2019 guidance to airports regarding the deployment and use of UAS detection systems can be viewed here.

• AAAE’s recommendations to the FAA on how to mitigate safety and security risks posed by UAS in the airport environment can be viewed here.

• A list of airports covered under the LAANC service can be found here.


Justin Barkowski
Vice President, Regulatory Affairs
(703) 797-2538