Gov­ern­ment shut­down slows MEM drone pro­gram

Air­port Au­thor­ity one of 10 par­tic­i­pat­ing groups

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - Max Gar­land Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE

Mem­phis In­ter­na­tional Air­port of­fi­cials are ea­ger for a bur­geon­ing drone pro­gram to fly higher in 2019, but the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must end its shut­down first.

The Mem­phis-shelby County Air­port Au­thor­ity is one of 10 par­tic­i­pants in the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion’s Un­manned Ae­rial Sys­tems In­te­gra­tion Pi­lot Pro­gram. Through this, the air­port and part­ners like Fedex con­duct drone mis­sions to in­form the gov­ern­ment on fu­ture drone poli­cies and ap­pli­ca­tions.

The mis­sions give the air­port, Fedex and oth­ers a chance to test how drones could help their fu­ture op­er­a­tions — think de­liv­er­ing parts around the bustling Fedex World Hub or pa­trolling the air­port’s perime­ter. But the gov­ern­ment has to ap­prove a mis­sion’s ap­pli­ca­tion be­fore a drone flight can be con­ducted.

“We’re kind of stuck right now be­cause the gov­ern­ment’s shut down, and we can’t get any doc­u­ments,” said Scott Brock­man, air­port au­thor­ity CEO. “We can’t do any­thing with­out them ap­prov­ing it, so it’s kind of cre­at­ing a headache.”

That headache will ex­tend well be­yond the drone pro­gram if the shut­down per­sists, said Pace Cooper, chair of the air­port au­thor­ity’s board of di­rec­tors.

“If it does go on in­def­i­nitely and short weeks turn into months, I think this could be re­ally dis­turb­ing to the trans­porta­tion sys­tem,” Cooper said, adding he is ul­ti­mately op­ti­mistic a so­lu­tion to the shut­down will come about soon.

The shut­down’s end will al­low the pro­gram to build upon what it ac­com­plished in 2018: 43 mis­sions run­ning for a to­tal of 5.7 flight hours, per the air­port. Mis­sions un­der the air­port’s purview fo­cused mostly on se­cu­rity in­spec­tions and oc­curred at Mem­phis non­profit Agri­cen­ter In­ter­na­tional, the Lib­erty Bowl and even all the way to Cal­i­for­nia.

“I think this year we’ll be tak­ing it to the next level in terms of deep­en­ing our role in con­tribut­ing to this na­tional test­ing that’s go­ing on,” Cooper said.

Pro­gram’s fu­ture in­cludes Fedex hub flights

Time is ev­ery­thing for a courier like Daily $2.00

Fedex. Brock­man said drones could speed up parts of the Mem­phis de­liv­ery gi­ant’s World Hub op­er­a­tions, which oc­cupy much of the air­port and han­dle hun­dreds of flights daily.

Mis­sions Fedex will run with the drones in­clude:

❚ Plac­ing trans­mit­ters on hub equip­ment, so a drone can fly over the hub and be able to de­tect and lo­cate where a piece is via trans­mit­ter, Brock­man said.

“That’ll be­come re­ally im­por­tant. It’s re­ally us­able for a lot of ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the mil­i­tary,” he said.

❚ De­liv­er­ing parts from ware­house to air­field. Travers­ing vast spa­ces while car­ry­ing goods, some­thing Fedex knows a thing or two about, is a strength of drones, Brock­man said.

“Right now, in the mid­dle of their hub op­er­a­tions, a ve­hi­cle has to drive through all of that traf­fic out to an air­craft, and it takes them a very long time to get there,” he said. “A drone can get there in no time.”

❚ In­spect­ing air­craft, fa­cil­ity se­cu­rity and emer­gency re­sponse, The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal pre­vi­ously re­ported.

“Fedex con­tin­ues to be a leader in trans­porta­tion tech­nol­ogy that im­proves safety and ef­fi­ciency for our team mem­bers, op­er­a­tions and cus­tomers,” the com­pany said in a state­ment. “We are sup­port­ive of test­ing and re­search in the FAA Un­manned Air­craft Sys­tem pi­lot pro­gram. We are pleased that the FAA has se­lected Mem­phis as a test site for the pro­gram.”

The air­port it­self will use drones to con­duct perime­ter se­cu­rity. A drone fly­ing along the air­port’s fence line can use high-def­i­ni­tion footage and night vi­sion to cap­ture any to­po­graphic changes, be they ero­sion or holes dug by an­i­mals, or sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity.

The air­port has roughly 5,000 acres within its fence line, Brock­man said, mean­ing in­spec­tions done by staff are ex­pen­sive, time-con­sum­ing and “not al­ways the best use of re­sources.”

The air­port has also pro­posed — but still needs to be ap­proved for — us­ing drones for run­way safety in­spec­tions to make sure de­bris isn’t in the path of air­craft. Cur­rently, the air­port re­lies on a ve­hi­cle to drive two miles of run­way with mul­ti­ple passes to make sure noth­ing was missed.

Brock­man said the air­port is in­te­grat­ing drone mis­sions that will ben­e­fit Mem­phis en­ti­ties, too. Pro­gram part­ners in­clude the Mem­phis Fire and Po­lice de­part­ments, the Univer­sity of Mem­phis and 901Drones.

“We are do­ing (test­ing) in a way where we cre­ate bet­ter ben­e­fits for the lo­cal places that maybe the mis­sion did not pick, like the City of Mem­phis want­ing to do in­spec­tions on the Lib­erty Bowl, or Shelby County want­ing to do in­spec­tions of rivers and wa­ter­ways,” Brock­man said.

Will drones fill Mem­phis’ skies?

The drone pro­gram is fo­cused on tak­ing slow and steady steps to make sure drones can one day be im­ple­mented safely into airspace with reg­u­lar­ity, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Drones are typ­i­cally tied down with re­stric­tions like hav­ing to re­main in its pi­lot’s line of sight dur­ing flight.

Those in­volved in the DOT’S Un­manned Ae­rial Sys­tems In­te­gra­tion Pi­lot Pro­gram are abid­ing by that phi­los­o­phy, tak­ing a “crawl, then walk, then run, then fly” ap­proach to drone op­er­a­tions, Brock­man said.

It’s a worth­while ap­proach to get the pub­lic more com­fort­able with the idea of an in­creased drone pres­ence, he said.

“Any time you bring out some­thing that is new or in­no­va­tive that peo­ple aren’t used to, it’s go­ing to cre­ate ap­pre­hen­sion,” he said. “By do­ing this (pro­gram) in this very fo­cused way, we are hope­fully go­ing to be able to al­le­vi­ate some of those con­cerns.”

Does that mean drones will be a fre­quent air­port pres­ence a decade from now? Cooper said the air­port wants to be a leader in for­ward-think­ing tech­nolo­gies like drones. But he added drones can be in­te­grated in ways that com­ple­ment, in­stead of com­pet­ing with, other air­craft.

Kerry Stock­slager, pres­i­dent of 901Drones, had a sim­i­lar take. She sees drones just adding to cur­rent se­cu­rity and main­te­nance op­er­a­tions.

“I don’t think they’ll take the place of any one thing,” she said of drones. “It’ll be in ad­di­tion to satel­lites, or he­li­copters, or guards. I see them as en­rich­ing what ex­ists cur­rently.”

Max Gar­land cov­ers Fedex, lo­gis­tics and health care for The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal. Reach him at max.gar­[email protected]­mer­cialap­peal.com or 901-529-2651 and on Twit­ter @Max­gar­land­types.

COUR­TESY OF MEM­PHIS IN­TER­NA­TIONAL AIR­PORT

A flight crew con­ducts a drone mis­sion at the Lib­erty Bowl in Mem­phis, part of the Mem­phis In­ter­na­tional Air­port's drone pro­gram.

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