Pilot groups are raising safety concerns about letting small unmanned aircraft fly in U.S. skies as Congress orders regulators to speed up introduction of drones for domestic, non-military use.
The Federal Aviation Administration is about to issue its first rules to let businesses and local law enforcement fly drones in U.S. civilian airspace without special permits. The agency, under a defense bill passed in December, has until June to open six U.S. test sites where drones will fly with other traffic.
Demand to use remote-controlled aircraft for such uses as aerial photography has soared as planes ranging from a few pounds to the size of a jetliner have proven their value with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
“This is a revolutionary type of technology,” Gielow said in a phone interview. The Arlington, Virginia-based AUVSI has 2,100 members, including Boeing Co. subsidiary Insitu and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc.
There is no system that allows operators of unmanned flights to spot and steer clear of helicopters and planes, and there aren’t training requirements or standards for the ground-based “pilots” who guide drones, Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association union, told reporters yesterday. It’s also not clear how a remotely piloted craft would respond to air-traffic controllers in an emergency, Moak said.
Until unmanned aircraft can demonstrate that they won’t crash into other planes or the ground, they shouldn’t be allowed to fly with other traffic, he said.
“We have a long way to go,” Moak said. ALPA is the largest pilots’ union in North America.
No Widespread Use
Drones are controlled by operators using radio-controlled devices. Newer systems use tablet computers to send commands.
The FAA initially won’t allow their widespread use, said Doug Davis, who oversees the only U.S. civilian test bed for the vehicles at New Mexico State University. Based on recommendations to the FAA from industry, flights probably will be limited to devices weighing less than 55 pounds, he said.
Flights probably will be restricted to outside populated areas, to no more than a few hundred feet off the ground, and within sight of an operator on the ground, he said.
That would, at least at first, block use by police departments and others who would like to get aerial views in cities, Steven Gitlin, a spokesman for AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, California, said.
“Market adoption will probably start slow and speed up over time as people get more experience with them,” Gitlin said.
AeroVironment, the largest supplier of small drones to the U.S. military, believes there could be significant sales of the devices to law-enforcement agencies, utilities and others, he said.
Only about 1 percent of the 18,000 U.S. police departments have an aviation department. AeroVironment has developed a 5.5-pound hovercraft for law enforcement, called the Qube, which would cost about $50,000, Gitlin said.
“There’s going to be a lot more of this discussion of the privacy issue” once police, the news media or private detectives are able to launch hard-to-see devices into the sky with cameras, Davis said.
While accidents involving drones haven’t caused any known fatalities in the U.S., their brief history has been marred by at least two incidents.
In August 2010, the military considered shooting down a Navy unmanned helicopter that went out of control and was flying toward restricted airspace near Washington, according to a transcript of a press conference by Admiral James Winnefeld, who then commanded NORAD. The Navy regained radio contact with the drone and guided it back to its base at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, he said.
Last year in Afghanistan, a drone collided with a military C-130 cargo aircraft, according to Davis. The cargo plane landed safely.
There are 295 active drone permits in the U.S., the FAA said in an e-mailed statement acknowledging that it’s working on a rule for their wider use.
The FAA has declined to identify the government agencies and companies that have received permits, prompting a lawsuit last year from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based free-speech advocacy group.
Last year’s defense bill ordered the FAA to create six test sites where unmanned flights could operate alongside regular aircraft. The unmanned-vehicle industry lobbied for the change, frustrated by what it sees as the slow pace of regulatory change, Paul McDuffee, head of commercial development at Insitu, said in an interview.
The FAA funding and policy bill expected to pass both houses of Congress next week would order the agency to complete a “comprehensive plan” on how to integrate unmanned flights into the aviation system by Sept. 30, 2015.
Pilots are required to scan the skies to stay clear of other aircraft, and video cameras can’t replace a pilot’s eyes, Heidi Williams, senior director of airspace and modernization at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said in an interview. AOPA is a Frederick, Maryland-based group that represents private pilots.
The military and industry are developing systems that can track other planes and guide drones away from other traffic. So far, the FAA hasn’t certified such a system for use.
McDuffee said he agrees with Moak’s and Williams’s safety concerns.
“Will it be possible for peaceful coexistence between manned aircraft and unmanned systems? Yes,” he said. “Will it come quickly? No.”