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Debating Domestic Drones

​WILL DRONES SOON BE FREQUENT FLIERS IN AMERICAN SKIES? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), under a legislative mandate, is trying to formulate new regulations that the wider use of drones formally known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs)—would require. But some industry leaders say the regulatory effort is proceeding much too slowly, while other parties remain concerned about security and safety issues.

“Some believe that unmanned aerial systems—which many people call drones—are the latest evidence that robots or machines are going to take over the world,” said Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV) at a January Senate hearing on the future of unmanned aviation. “Other people believe these vehicles present a massive opportunity for American productivity and economic growth. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

The FAA is required by the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012 to integrate UASs into U.S. airspace by September 2015. If that happens, the FAA estimates that roughly 7,500 new UASs could fly in the United States over the next five years. Many, however, are skeptical that the FAA will be able to meet its legislative deadline.

“The FAA has made progress on the mandate, and it is important to acknowledge that. But it is definitely behind,” Ben Gielow, senior government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), tells Security Management. Gielow is not alone in his view; both the Transportation Department’s inspector general, Calvin Scovel III, and the director of civil aviation of the Government Accountability Office, Gerald Dillingham, said at a February House subcommittee hearing on FAA modernization that they believed the FAA would not meet the 2015 deadline.

Currently, the use of drones for commercial purposes is banned. However, the FAA has allowed limited use of unmanned aircraft for public safety missions, such as firefighting, disaster relief, and border security. About three dozen law enforcement agencies have been authorized to operate UASs, and universities occasionally use them for weather, agriculture, and industrial research.

Unmanned aircraft differ in capability—some are the size of a fist and fly slowly, at low altitudes, while others have the wing span of a Boeing 737 and fly above 60,000 feet. The distinguishing characteristic of a UAS, of course, is that the pilot is on the ground, not in the aircraft itself. This raises many security and safety issues: What should the rules be when an unmanned aircraft and a conventional plane with pilot and passengers are converging in the air? How can regulations ensure that, when UASs lose their link to the pilot, they can still detect and avoid other aircraft? How will these vehicles interact with the U.S. air traffic control system?

To develop the needed regulations and standards that address these questions, tests will be held at FAA-approved sites starting this year and continuing until at least 2017. The tests will be conducted by the University of Alaska; Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; Virginia Tech; the North Dakota Department of Commerce; Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York; and the state of Nevada. Sites were chosen, in part, for their geographic and climatic diversity, and each will have a different research focus. At Griffiss International Airport, for example, officials will spend time researching the complexities of integrating UASs into the congested northeast airspace, and developing adequate “sense-and-avoid” capabilities. Virginia Tech will test failure modes.

The FAA has also released a UAS Roadmap, which outlines the approach to the new regulations, policies, procedures, guidance material, and training that will be needed to support routine UAS operations over the next five to 10 years. For the first few years of that timeframe, the agency plans to use special procedures to accommodate limited UAS access to the nation’s airspace on a case-by-case basis. The need for individualized accommodation is expected to decline as integration expands.

Additionally, the AUVSI estimates that by 2025 UASs could boost the domestic economy by as much as $82 billion a year. (Such an estimate, which some argue is optimistic, includes more than 100,000 jobs directly or indirectly created by the new industry.) Given this high-dollar impact, some industry leaders say the FAA is moving too slowly with integration and so the United States is falling behind its competitors. Mary Cummings, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots who is now director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, has argued that countries like Japan, which uses drones for 90 percent of its crop dusters, and the United Kingdom, which uses drones for commercial photography (and, occasionally, pizza delivery), are beating the United States in the sector. “The United States is lagging, not leading, the commercial drone boom,” Cummings said at the Senate hearing.

But others caution that opening up U.S. airspace for unmanned aircraft is a massive undertaking that warrants a deliberate pace moving forward. Peter Dumont, president and CEO of the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), said at an industry conference in January that including UASs in civil airspace is a tremendous challenge from the controller’s point of view. “Integrating UASs is the hardest thing we have ever done,” Dumont said.