February 03, 2017      

Unless you receive special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), flying drones anywhere near airports is illegal. The FAA has granted waivers for drone flights at smaller airports, but until recently it never permitted a drone flight in class B airspace that covers a few dozen major airports.

On January 10, 2017, 3D Robotics (3DR) received such permission and conducted the first drone flights at a major airport under the new Part 107 commercial drone rules, as Recode first reported.

3DR performed seven flights at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), the world’s busiest airport which in 2015 became the first airport in the world to exceed 100 million annual passengers. 3DR was tasked with collecting data on two four-story parking structures at the airport that a construction firm was hired to demolish. 3DR captured more than 700 images of a 40-acre section of the airport.

3DR explains in a blog how it obtained permission from the FAA, saying that “part of the requirement for the authorization was that the flight team was in radio contact with the ATL control tower at all times during the flight and performed all operations under the control tower’s authority.”

Aerial view of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s North Parking Garage captured by a 3D Robotics Site Scan drone. (Credit: 3D Robotics)

Here’s more about how 3DR was granted permission:

“Because the site was in the controlled airspace of an international airport, the 3DR team used the new FAA online portal to obtain the authorization for the flight. As part of the airspace authorization process, 3DR and Atkins were able to demonstrate to the FAA that an operation in such a critical location between runways could be performed safely using Site Scan, 3DR’s autonomous aerial data capture platform. After coordinating with the ATL air traffic control tower, the FAA granted airspace authorization enabling this aerial data capture on Atkins’ construction site.”

The FAA only started approving applications for waivers to fly drones near busy airports on December 5, 2016. 3DR worked with Autodesk, Atkins, a design and engineering firm, and the Department of Aviation of the City of Atlanta to perform the first FAA-approved commercial drone operation at a major airport.