For over 90 years, flights have been taking off and landing at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. These days it has approximately 2,500 arrivals and departures a day that carry about 275,000 passengers, making it the busiest airport in the world.
But in January, there was a flight at the Atlanta airport like no other in its long history: the first FAA-approved commercial drone operation in the airspace around a major U.S. airport.
Drone regulations and Class B airspace
To fully appreciate this milestone, you need a little background on U.S. commercial drone regulations. Last summer—after years of pressure from industry groups, companies, and agencies—the FAA released new rules for non-hobbyist small unmanned aircraft operations (officially called Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations). The biggest changes in these new rules had to do with the people and certifications involved in operating a drone, which had also been the biggest barriers for widespread use of drones in commercial operations.
But with all these new rules, one thing has not changed: drones cannot be flown in ‘Class B airspace’ without approval from the airport’s air traffic control (ATC). Class B airspace is the airspace surrounding airports with high density air traffic operations, like Hartsfield–Jackson. The prohibition is in place to protect the approach and departure paths of aircraft using these airports. Given these safety concerns, obtaining authorization from Atlanta’s ATC to fly a drone there was not a trivial matter.
What prompted the flight?
The airport is embarking on a $6 billion expansion and renovation that includes updating the existing terminal and concourses as well as adding a new hotel, parking garage, and concourse. The project also includes the demolition and replacement of the airport’s two aging domestic terminal parking garages, which are located smack dab between the airport’s two clusters of runways. Atkins—a global design, engineering and project management firm—is providing engineering services to the airport for the demolition and rebuilding of the garages.
As with any building project, an accurate representation of the existing conditions is critical for design and construction. But even the most accurate as-built drawings are generally error-prone. So Atkins worked with 3DR and Autodesk to digitally capture the existing conditions of the garages and the surrounding area using photogrammetry.
Autodesk partners with drone technology companies like 3DR to develop drone solutions for reality capture. Last year this partnership led to the release of 3DR’s Site Scan solution. Site Scan gives users of 3DR’s Solo drone one-click data collection and processing that’s integrated with the Autodesk design software used by Atkins. With Site Scan, users can upload geotagged data to the Autodesk ReCap cloud for processing into orthorectified 2D maps, 3D digital terrain models, and 3D point clouds.
Since the garages are in Class B airspace, Atlanta’s ATC needed to authorize any drone flights. The team used a new FAA online portal to request an airspace authorization for the flight, which included the goals and description of the proposed drone operation, including how the Site Scan technology could be safely used to capture images of the garages and their surroundings. After a few weeks passed, the FAA contacted the team with follow-up questions, leading to several joint phone calls between the team, the FAA, and Atlanta’s Department of Aviation (the airport operator). This dialog helped convince airport officials that the drone operation could be performed safely. The authorization was granted and the flight plans were finalized, with the requirements that the team must be in radio contact with the airport’s control tower during the flight and perform all operations under its authority.
The historic flight
The drone operation occurred without a hitch on Jan 10th, with seven flights capturing over 700 images across 40 acres. These images were then uploaded to the ReCap cloud where they were automatically processed into high-definition maps and 3D point clouds of the parking garages. These maps and point cloud models will be used for demolition planning, as well as for the design and construction of the new garages.