Drone program excites Memphis airport, but government shutdown slowing it down – The Commercial Appeal



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Memphis International Airport-led participation in FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program should be magnet for new technology jobs. Wayne Risher/The Commercial Appeal

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.”

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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 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.”

“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.”



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FedEx Super Hub in action Memphis Commercial Appeal

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 [email protected] or 901-529-2651 and on Twitter @MaxGarlandTypes.

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