Following successful proof-of-concept drone flights at Kansas’s largest commercial airport this summer, the operations staff of Wichita Eisenhower National Airport (ICT) will begin training to fly drones and earn their Part 107 remote pilot licenses over the next few months, Wichita Airport Authority operations manager Brian Cowles told AIN. It will allow the airport’s six operations officers—including Cowles—to fly drones for airfield inspections and other tasks, making ICT one of the first airports in the country to integrate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into its daily operations.
“The significance of being able to do what we’re doing at the airport is to be able to maintain the safety and integrity of the airport system,” Kansas director of aviation Bob Brock added in an interview with AIN. “It is drastically improved by being able to use a drone.” Earlier this year, officials at ICT contacted Brock’s office at the Kansas Department of Transportation Division of Aviation to see if or how they might be able to use drones since Kansas is one of nine lead participants in the FAA’s small UAS Integration Pilot Program.
From the flights, Cowles learned that the airport could use drones for a number of activities beyond airfield inspection. That includes inspecting the airport’s perimeter fencing, passenger terminal, and other buildings; assisting airport firefighters in locating victims in airplane crashes; and shooting aerial marketing videos of airport buildings available for lease.
But Cowles said it’s airfield inspections where a drone has proved its greatest value during the proof-of-concept flights. Using video taken by a drone over a period of time, Cowles said, officials were able to see subtle changes to the condition of airfield pavement that they wouldn’t have otherwise. “You don’t notice those gradual changes,” he said. “I think it’s a lot more thorough.” Using drones also cut down on the time and manpower spent conducting airfield inspections. Normally, two operations officers would drive side-by-side down ICT’s three, 150-foot-wide runways to conduct visual inspections. A drone equipped with a video camera eliminates that requirement. “That runway can be 10,000 feet long, so that's almost two miles of inspection that has to be done visually, basically from a car,” Brock added. “Today, if we use the drone, we can have far better detection, far better field of view, and it can occur much faster and [we can] document that image to be able to analyze it later.”
After operations officers complete and pass their Part 107 training, they will travel north to Kansas State University Polytechnic in Salina, where they will receive flight instruction. “We don’t want to become a problem for the aircraft we’re around,” Cowles said.
He hopes that by March the operations staff will be ready to operate the drone. At that point, they will work to establish formal procedures for drone operations at the airport, Cowles explained.