Drones help expand the world's busiest airport

The Atlanta project is proof that robotic fliers can coexist with passenger jets.


Drones and airports usually go together like oil and water, but you can't say that about Atlanta's air hub. The city has formed a partnership with 3DR, Autodesk and engineering firm Atkins that has drones mapping Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as part of a planned expansion. The key to making it work was Site Scan, 3DR's autonomous data capturing tech. The drones could capture 2D mosaics and 3D point scans while staying well away from the airliners -- no mean feat when they're flying between runways at the busiest airport in the world (over 100 million passengers per year).

If anything, the biggest challenge was getting the green light from extra-wary FAA regulators. Site Scan helped convince the FAA that the mapping drones wouldn't fly into harm's way, but the approval also demanded that the drone operators stay in constant contact with air traffic control and submit to controllers' authority.

The effort should pay dividends before long. The maps and models will help with both demolishing old locations and the early designs for their replacements. Also, 3DR hopes that the lessons it learned in getting FAA clearance will help with other commercial drone outfits. It recently published some learning tools that could give other companies a helping hand, so projects like this may soon be run-of-the-mill.