Study shows need for small UAS geofencing near busy airports

By Patrick C. Miller | October 18, 2018

A new 13-day study of DJI drone flights near Daytona Beach International Airport in Florida found that about 20 percent of the flights posed an unmitigated risk to nearby manned aviation operations.

The published study—conducted by researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University—details the results of a small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) detection project. Sampling flights of DJI drones, the College of Aviation faculty research team detected 73 individual unmanned aircraft that made nearly 200 separate flights.

To gather data, researchers installed a DJI AeroScope detection platform that rapidly identifies unmanned aircraft communication links and gathers flight status, paths and other information in real-time. Because the drone flights identified were limited to one manufacturer—DJI—researchers said it’s likely many more sUAS flights occurred that weren’t cataloged.

Researchers also collected valuable operator behavior data, including common sUAS flight locations, time and altitudes. Operational data was compared against published FAA UAS facility maps to examine potential risk areas. Additionally, sUAS detections were compared against historical ADS-B information to examine for potential midair collisions, yielding several notable case studies.

Only 12 percent of these small unmanned aircraft were flying near unimproved land and parks. More than three-fourths were flying in residential neighborhoods or near single-family homes. Another 21.5 percent hovered above commercial, industrial or public properties, the researchers reported.

“This was an unexpected finding,” said Ryan Wallace, assistant professor of aeronautical science and lead author of the study. “We thought most drone operators would choose relatively open areas offering a safety buffer from hazards, but that wasn’t the case.”

The study found that more than 20 percent of 177 flights detected were flying higher than the safe altitude prescribed for their operating area.  In addition, researchers compared detected UAS operations to historical manned aircraft flight data, revealing several near encounters that presented risks to manned aircraft near the airport.

The Embry–Riddle researchers suggest that drone manufacturers should more frequently incorporate geofencing technology to prevent sUAS from accidentally entering restricted areas. The study’s authors also proposed that the FAA could consider making more information on sUAS activity available to aircraft pilots.