Ohio State University Airport is taking drone technology to the next level.

The airport, 2160 W. Case Road in northwest Columbus, is using the device to study the condition of the runway, locate clusters of wild animals, check for fences that might need mending and provide visual information about maintenance issues.

“This basically is a mobile studio unit,” said Adam Wolf, manager of airport operations.

The DJI Matrice 210 is a small drone helicopter, which has four propellers and is outfitted with three cameras: zoom, thumbnail imaging and high resolution, high definition pictures, Wolf said.

A person on the ground operates the drone remotely while communicating with someone in the airport’s control tower to make sure the small copter is not in the flight path of larger aircraft.

Ohio State’s drone must stay within its air space and remain in the operator’s line of sight, Wolf said.

It can buzz along at 40 mph, stop on a dime and hover steadily even in 35 mph winds, transmitting crystal-clear images, Wolf said.

The $25,000 machine was purchased in 2018. It is fueled by a battery pack and weighs about 13 pounds when loaded with cameras, devices and equipment. The device may be used to locate animals – mostly birds and other fowl and the occasional stray coyote – but may not be used to chase or intimidate them, Wolf said.

The drone also is equipped to measure trees at the airport and approach. When they grow to a height of 400 feet, they get topped. When trees are dead, they get removed.

That capability saves maintenance crews time and money to do visual inventories of such conditions, he said.

“It’s limited only by what our imagination will do,” Wolf said of the drone.

Airport director Doug Hammon said he has become a big fan of the drone and what it’s been able to accomplish.

“It’s a great tool,” he said. “I think we’ve done an excellent job of integrating it into the airport operations,” Hammon said. “We’ve also been asked by several (other airports) to support them in their drone-research activities.

“It really is being used for all the different purposes we thought we could use it for,” he added. “And with the (Federal Aviation Administration coming in (to set benchmarks) we can do more.”

Ohio State is somewhat unusual in that it’s a Part 139 Certified Airport, meaning it meets all of the standards to accommodate commercial airlines, but none is operating from there. Part 139 refers to the FAA’s Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations.

Until a few years ago, drone management usually was limited to smaller airports with less traffic.

“We were the first 139 airport to have used drones to be part of its airfield management,” Hammon said.

Hobbyists have added a tense element to airport operations, he said.

Personal drone operators are not allowed to fly their machines on airport land and are not allowed to go higher than 400 feet, he said.

Commercial drone operators must be registered with the FAA, Hammon said.

“The problem we’re having right now about incidents around the airport were the hobbyists; they’re not supposed to be above 400 (feet),” he said. “In the area around the airport, there’s a lot tighter control.”

For additional information on FAA rules regarding unmanned aircraft, go to tinyurl.com/y6jthdq3.