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Drone flights at the world’s busiest airport? What’s going on?

Why it matters to you

The FAA's green light shows its willingness to relax the rules, giving the drone industry confidence to make full use of this fast-expanding technology.

Any drone owner with an ounce of common sense knows full well that taking their bird to the airport will likely result in a run-in with the authorities, or, in a worst-case scenario, a downed aircraft and global news headlines.

That’s why you don’t see quadcopters buzzing around airports.

However, if visitors to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport catch sight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or two in the sky, there’s a good chance they’re being flown with special permission. Very special permission.

The drone flights are among the first to be green-lit by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at a major airport, in this case the world’s largest in terms of passenger numbers.

So what’s going on?

It’s all to do with upcoming expansion work at the airport, which handles more than 100 million passengers a year, according to the most recent data.

British design and engineering firm Atkins has been hired to work on the construction of a new airport hotel for which several parking facilities will need to be demolished. To help with its work and to minimize disruption at the airport, Atkins has partnered with California-based robotics and drone specialist 3DR, and with software and engineering firm Autodesk, to carry out drone flights for 3D modeling of the area.

Of course, obtaining permission to fly drones at the airport was a tricky proposition for the team, especially when you consider that some of its work was actually taking place between runways.

After demonstrating precisely how it intended to do its drone-related work, and outlining the specific safety measures that it had in place, the FAA granted permission for several flights, the first of which took off last month.

“Part of the requirement for the authorization was that the flight team was in radio contact with the [airport’s] control tower at all times during the flight and performed all operations under the control tower’s authority,” 3DR explained on its website.

Seven data-gathering drone flights have so far been carried out at the site, with no issues reported.

The FAA published a new set of rules for commercial drone operators last year, but for some flights, like 3DR’s, special permission is required. The FAA’s decision to allow 3DR to proceed demonstrates the agency’s willingness to relax the rules under certain circumstances, and augurs well for other businesses looking to make full use of this fast-expanding technology.