Drones are here to stay and airports need to start thinking now about the opportunities they provide as well as the infrastructure needed to take advantage of the sector’s phenomenal growth.
That was the message from Airservices Australia executive general manager customer service enhancement Michelle Bennetts at this year’s AAA National Conference as she outlined the steps needed to address the issue.
Bennetts painted a picture of autonomous aircraft entering multiple facets of Australian life and business from mining and agriculture to home delivery, air taxis and air freight.
She said research firm Gartner released a report last month that predicted autonomous devices would become increasingly smarter through artificial intelligence and machine learning and this would be one of the top 10 trends to watch in 2020.
“In the not-so-distant future, we may see a scenario where an autonomous cargo plane moves goods to the required destination, then robots or drones would be deployed from the plane to make the final delivery of the package, direct to the door of the purchaser,” she said. “So there’s a race to get to the skies first with the best business models and the right mix of product and customer focus.”
In Australia, Bennetts pointed to Uber Air’s plans to test its aerial taxi service in Melbourne and Google Wing’s home-delivery service in Canberra.
She noted the Civil Aviation Safety Authority had issued almost 14,000 remote pilots’ licences and a whopping 1728 RPA operator certificates for commercial drone use.
“To put this in perspective, according to CASA, the number of manned aircraft operator certificates for commercial use is already double the number of manned air operator certificates,” she said.
Bennetts said the new industry players would need to operate in and around airports and integrate with existing aviation operators.
The infrastructure they were envisaging, such as skyports, and how they interacted with airports and airspace boundaries would require “comprehensive assessment and long-term thinking”
She also noted the realization of the full economic and social potential of drones would be commercially driven.
She said airports started with big advantages when it came to taking opportunity of the aviation revolution driven by drones.
Not only were they focal points of existing transport and distribution networks, they had the maintenance and certifications facilities that drone operators would require.
They also had experience in gaining community support and were already recognised and appreciated as job creators, businesses and commercial hubs.
However, the Airservices executive warned these advantages did not guarantee success.
“If airports are too slow to provide what is needed for this next wave of aviation activity, or too demanding of their potential partners, then I suspect other solutions will be found to accommodate the era of drones,” she said.
“There is a need right now for long-term thinking and infrastructure planning for drone operations at airports.
“This may include hanger space, integration into flight operations, cargo transits, passenger management, and community consultation.
“Then there are the questions of landing pads, aerial device parking arrangements, changes to security processes and the impact on airport car parking and retail demand.
“The time is now for airports to think towards a very different and disrupted future. None of us knows exactly what the future will hold.
“It is quite possible that drones will open up new competitive pressures, both between airports themselves, and between airports and newly developed facilities near airports that we can now barely imagine.”
In the shorter term, however, Airservices has teamed with CASA and the Department of Defence to install and commission passive drone detection systems across all Australian aerodromes with an air traffic control service.
“That is 29 airports and given this scale, we believe this is a world-first operation that provides a national drone detection capability across the country,” she said.
“We will continue to build on this capability over the next 12 months.
“We have almost completed the installation of the equipment at these locations and are now focussed on establishing a real time monitoring capability.
“This will allow active monitoring of drones and see us refine protocols in response to a drone detection, in collaboration with the regulator, the airports and law enforcement.
“Once that is done, we will explore options for the integration of our detection and monitoring capability into today’s air traffic management system.”
A second priority for Airservices, according to Bennetts, was the development of a new information-based traffic management services and systems that support the exchange of information between unmanned aircraft systems to ensure the safe passage of multiple aircraft through shared airspace.
A third priority was to develop a better understanding of the future industry through broad engagement with industry participants, targeted research and economic modelling.
One example of this was a project looking at how to model how particular piece of lower level airspace can be designed to safely integrate drones for current uses potentially for larger scale, future uses.
This would be in consultation with the relevant airports and be a consideration of future master planning and community consultation processes.
“By developing a better understanding of the possibilities that could unfold over the next 10 to 20 years, all of us in today’s Australian aviation industry will be more prepared to deal with the opportunities and threats that will be presented to us,” Bennetts said.
“At Airservices, we are proactively and collaboratively getting ready for the long-term future where comprehensive integration of drones into today’s air traffic management network will be a necessity.”
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.