The Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) announced last week that it received approval from the FAA to conduct test flights with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) at Wichita’s Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (ICT). KDOT will incorporate UAS to assist with obstruction analysis, foreign object detection, wildlife hazard management, and airfield emergency response.

The UAS operations are part of the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, which is intended to accelerate the integration of UAS technology. KDOT is one of ten state and local government entities across the country selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to participate in the program. Between 2019 and 2021, participants in the program will collect data on advanced types of UAS operations that now require special authorization, such as operations over people, nighttime operations, and package deliveries. This data will aid the DOT and FAA in developing new rules to support more complex UAS operations, while addressing security and privacy risks.

KDOT’s planned operations may demonstrate that UAS can enhance operations and improve safety at airports such as ICT. Compared to traditional methods, drones may prove superior for a range of tasks, such as identifying debris and defective markings on runways. At the same time, drones conducting airport inspections must be operated in a way that does not interfere with takeoff and landing operations by manned aircraft. The FAA’s pilot program will provide valuable insight into how UAS may be used to strengthen airport inspections, as well as the procedures that are needed to ensure the public’s safety.

The FAA’s authorization also allows KDOT to conduct nighttime UAS operations at ICT. This waiver, described by KDOT as “precedent setting,” will provide the FAA with additional information on UAS integration in controlled airspace.

According to KDOT, the FAA’s authorization was received through a partnership with the Wichita Airport Authority, Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus, and George Butler Associates (GBA). Kansas State and GBA will help establish operational procedures as members of a joint operations crew.