Plans discussed to integrate drones into manned airplane & airport airspace

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) Drones are able to capture some amazing views. But there are still places they are not able to go, including airports.

As Virginia marks Aviation Safety Week, the topic is once again a focus.

That's because for drone flyers without certain licenses who are just flying for fun, they can't be within 5 miles of an airport.

Even with the proper licenses, no one can fly on the property without notifying the airport first.

But as drones move into the future, integrating them into manned airplane space is crucial.

One of the people speaking at a public session at Virginia Tech's airport Wednesday night was Richard Hanson, the President of the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

He explained, "As we get more and more of these aircraft in the airspace, we have to find ways that those can interact in a safe and responsible manner with the manned community and other unmanned operators."

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS or drones, in the country by 2020 is between 2.9 million and 5.3 million.

Compare that to 320,000 manned airplanes in use now.

But the big concern is people buying drones in department stores or online and just going out to fly them without any training. Those same people will be sharing space with airplane pilots who have lots of training.

Randy Burdette, the Executive Director of the Virginia Department of Aviation , said, "When you're flying an unmanned aircraft, if you're not brought up in the same safety culture, you may not realize the importance and the risk of your actions. So it's important that we get the unmanned in to work with us, to understand the manned community as well as the unmanned so they understand how we work together and how we can do that safely."

Burdette and Hanson were joined Wednesday night by Kathleen Swain, the Senior Director of UAS Programs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association and Jay Wilmott, the Past Chapter President for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Both airplane and drone pilots spoke during Wednesday night's public session.

The idea of having mandatory training or safety information provided for drones who would share the same space as airplanes, was supported by all.

Marcus Ogle lives in Hillsville and is a manned airplane pilot and flies drones.

He said, "I'm working with other [UAS] pilots to see how we can get them in the aviation arena and to share airspace, and that's what this is all about."

Stephen Tanner from Blacksburg has been flying drones for three years, including commercially.

He said, "I want people to be informed and educated, because it's fear and misinformation that causes bad laws and overreactions."

The panel was asked Wednesday night when drones could be seen in and around airport space, sharing the same air as planes.

Hanson said large drones, weighing more than 55 pounds, will be there in about 5 to 10 years.

But some small drones, Burdette said, are already allowed in smaller airports, and it should be more common in the next three years.

For more information on the current rules, regulations, and licenses for drone use, visit the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems webpage.

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