ATL airport deploys drones for runway maintenance

By Luke Geiver | April 27, 2017

The busiest airport in the U.S. has turned to small unmanned aircraft vehicles to enhance and maintain day-to-day operations. Michael Baker International, an engineering and consulting service based out of Pittsburgh, recently flew a Topcon Falcon 8 UAV above a section of runway at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The flight, according to Michael Baker, was the first in the U.S. to involve drones on an airfield of an international airport during daily airport operations. 

In partnership with the ATL airport staff, a team from Michael Baker flew a section of runway measuring 3,000 linear feet. The runway—reaching 12,390 feet— is used for the heaviest aircrafts which typically cause the most pavement damage and safety concerns. 

The engineering company received approval from the FAA to fly in Class B airspace at the ATL location. The FAA is giving the team four months to perform the evaluation flights. During the time of the drone flight, two-way radio contact must be established between airport personnel and the drone ops team. The runway that is being inspected must also be shut down. 

The flights are designed to generate contours, orthomosaic imagery, RGB 3-D textured mesh and a digital terrain model, according to the engineering firm. The goal is to implement the captured data into Autodesk, ESRI and Bentley to help determine future needs of the runway. 

In less than two hours, the drone ops team was able to capture the data. A typical operation would require more than four hours of manual photography to document the state of the runway. 

“This was a great opportunity for our experts in geographic information systems to assist the airport with a unique challenge. The information we successfully gathered during this flight will give the airport valuable insight on the ongoing safety and maintenance of the airfield,” said Quintin Watkins, aviation program manager for Michel Baker’s Georgia office. “We hope to find ways to conduct similar missions with the airport in the future.” 

The ATL team has also used a drone to monitor its parking deck for areas in need of reconstruction.