Autonomous drones and the future of airport operations

Autonomous drones and the future of airport operations

With Mark Lupton – Chief Technology Officer

The integration of autonomous drone operations into airport environments is poised to revolutionise traditional procedures and redefine the scope of possibilities.  

By harnessing the power of cutting-edge technology, airports can enhance efficiency, bolster security, and streamline essential tasks. We sat down to talk to Mark Lupton, our Chief Technology Officer, about the promising applications of autonomous drone operations within the realm of airport activities – exploring how initiatives like Project HADO® are leading the way towards a new era of unmanned aviation. 

What are the most promising applications of autonomous drone operations in the realm of airport operations? 

“In my opinion, autonomous aerial drones can bring several distinct benefits to the airport sector and are definitely poised to revolutionise operations by tackling any number of tasks. Repetitive activities like perimeter patrols and routine surveillance are prime candidates, because drones offer an unparalleled level of reliability. They don’t tire, make errors, or lose focus.  

Through our work with Project HADO®, one particular flagship use case that we’ve identified through Project HADO® is perimeter surveillance. In this role, drones can methodically scan and collect data all while being integrated with FACE® for that comprehensive oversight.  

Drones can also be used in more hazardous situations like fires, crashes, or intrusions, to safeguard security personnel while providing critical data on incidents in real time. These autonomous devices promise quicker, more effective responses – minimising potential errors and enabling post-incident analysis for optimal future handling.” 

 

Could you elaborate on how Project HADO® aligns with the future vision of airport operations and drone autonomy? 

“At its core, Project HADO® is driven by our goal to demonstrate that autonomous drone operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) are both viable and achievable. Using London Heathrow as a testing ground, we can measure the effectiveness of drones in highly complex environments.  

Currently, we’ve identified four central use cases for BVLOS drones operating simultaneously and autonomously. These include performing routine security patrols, aiding in security responses, conducting user surveys, and tracking back drone incursions to their origins.  

Looking to the future, we aim to continue exploring possible applications, such as the delivery of packages – although this use case is definitely highly dependent on the context and specific site.” 

Want to learn more about Project HADO®? Read our full announcement today 

 

In what ways can autonomous drone operations enhance the efficiency and safety of airport processes? 

“I think that there’s a wide range of benefits that autonomous drone operations can bring to airports.  They can introduce more efficiency while enhancing safety by fulfilling repetitive and vital tasks. 

When drones complete operations, everything that they do is logged with hard data. This means that in any situation, users can retroactively understand in more detail than ever how drones, and the site, responded.  

We can see an example of this in a drone incursion. So, if an incursion does take place, users can understand exactly when drones detected it, where they were at the time, how the information was passed on and interpreted by response teams, and how to best move forward. As a result, airport sites can effectively bolster their security and response based on the complete data available, making their perimeter more secure than ever.” 

 

What challenges do you foresee in integrating autonomous drones into existing airport infrastructure and operations? 

“Integrating autonomous drones into airport operations isn’t a small ask, and it involves navigating a wide range of challenges.  

The technical challenge can’t be understated here, but what’s also interesting is the need for ‘societal readiness’. Public perceptions of drones flying around major airports need careful consideration, and we need to address the concerns of passengers, workers, and residents near airports who may not initially feel comfortable seeing drone flights near aircraft, even if they’re placed on carefully mapped pathways.  

‘Corporate readiness’ is another factor that needs to be addressed as well, which concerns how airport service providers, and various stakeholders, may interact with drones. At the forefront of our work here, we’re trying to shift the system that permits drone flights to a seamless, intuitive process, all while balancing the tension between drone operations and existing manned aviation – especially in terms of communication and coordination. This all requires careful navigation.” 

 

How might the adoption of autonomous drone operations impact the roles of human personnel at airports? 

“This is a really good question, and one that I think a lot of current personnel may be asking.  

While we can’t ignore the fact that autonomous drone operations will reshape the roles of human personnel at airports, drone operations are designed to provide another level of sophistication – elevating workflows in the process. 

Automating routine tasks such as perimeter surveillance can free up valuable manual resources for more strategic roles. And, while incident response will still require human involvement, the availability of accurate, real-time drone data will only enhance decision-making and help inform more effective countermeasures.  

If we look at surveys as well, I believe that an increase in survey efficiency will help professionals accomplish tasks more quickly and accurately, leveraging drones as tools to amplify their productivity. Now, instead of one rooftop surveyed per week, it’s ten, with accurate and reliable data gathered throughout the process.” 

 

Are there any real-world examples of an airport or organisation that has already embraced autonomous drones successfully? 

“Currently, there are several projects in the works across the globe that are focused on demonstrating the successful integration of autonomous drones in airport environments.  

These projects mainly focus on BVLOS operations in less complex settings, showcasing the potential for safe and efficient drone deployment for one identified use case, like drone delivery. These capabilities have already been seen in situations like Rwanda with blood and medicine deliveries. While less complex, they do show us that autonomous drone technology is a globally recognised asset. In the airport sector, I think that it’s an asset that can help modernise, streamline, and secure operations.” 

 

From a regulatory perspective, what steps are necessary to ensure the safe and responsible deployment of autonomous drones in airport environments? 

“It’s definitely important to note that these guidelines exist to make sure that any operation is safe, responsible, and free from the threat of disruption or security. Responsibly deploying autonomous drones in airport sites is a huge step, so it requires a combination of approaches.  

We need to start with a high-level risk assessment. Operators need to demonstrate that drone operations can be conducted safely and securely. This will be done through rigorous testing and validation processes.  

The next step involves actively working with the regulatory bodies themselves. By helping industry stakeholders and regulatory bodies collaborate, we can help create comprehensive guidelines needed to effectively manage autonomous BVLOS drone operations. These guidelines should incorporate the specific use cases identified for faster rollout, and the broader technological principles needed to permit operations within a set framework.  

I think that the last step here is futureproofing. Regulatory frameworks need constant updating to make sure that they can cater to new systems as they become readily available. By putting some emphasis on greater integration moving forward, we can help ensure that.” 

 

The sky’s the limit for Project HADO® 

“I’m incredibly proud of what Project HADO® has been able to achieve so far. The future of drone autonomy is such an exciting space, and one that I can’t believe we get to play a key role in here at OSL; collaborating with key partners like the Civil Aviation Authority and London Heathrow Airport to really shape the future of UK flight operations. With so many applications identified, and benefits realised, I’m confident that autonomous BVLOS drone operations can dramatically transform many operations in the airport sector, and beyond.” 

Want to learn more about Project HADO®? Discover its many benefits, UK-wide applications, and more in our in-depth exploration today.