The Pentagon, along with the Department of Homeland Security and NASA, has been negotiating with the Federal Aviation Administration for years to allow unmanned aerial vehicles to gain regular access to the national airspace.
The FAA has moved deliberately. If there is an accident, it is that agency’s responsibility, and it wants to be certain that any UAVs can “sense and avoid” any obstacles, just as a piloted aircraft can.
The Department of Homeland Security has a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that were acquired to patrol the borders. However, the department sees an expanding role for the UAVs, including disaster relief, and surveillance.
Michael Kostelnik, Customs and Border Protection assistant commissioner and head of the agency’s office of air and marine, said last year that the agency can pull one of its seven UAVs from border patrol duties, get an emergency authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration and fly anywhere in the United States within a day for secondary missions — most of the time within four to five hours, he said.
With plans to expand the fleet and the number of airports from which the DHS drones fly, he said he would like to reduce the reaction time to three hours.
A CBP drone returning from patrolling the northern border last year was diverted at the request of local law enforcement to peer down on an allegedly armed group of anti-government ranchers in North Dakota, according to the Los Angeles Times. The drone operators spotted them with weapons lying in wait for local sheriffs.
The Defense Department has both the largest pool of research and development dollars — and perhaps the most pressing need — to address the national airspace problem. With the end of the Iraq war, and the Afghanistan conflict scheduled to wind down, the services will be returning to the United States with their aircraft. They need to train pilots in the nation’s crowded skies. Currently, any drone that flies outside of military bases must have authorization from the FAA.
“Airspace is the biggest hurdle that unmanned has today,” said Dyke Weatherington deputy director of the unmanned warfare directorate at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition. His office has taken the Defense Department lead with the inter-agency working group that is trying to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles.
One issue the military has is that it rushed many of its drones into the field as the wars ramped up. It was not a priority to obtain air worthiness certificates that the FAA demands. The services may now have to backtrack to ensure that their aircraft meet that requirement.
“We would never take a manned system, put people in and fly it without air worthiness certification for that system. We should not expect that unmanned should be any different,” Weatherington said.
He wanted to stress that accident rates were going down. Military UAVs do crash, but in more than 3 million hours of operation, Defense Department drones have not caused a single casualty due to mechanical failures or other accidents.
“That’s not to say an accident will never occur, but our track record is pretty good,” he said.
However, the FAA may still have cause for concern. Remotely piloted aircraft accidents routinely make headlines. One of CBP’s first drones crashed in Arizona in 2006 near a residential area. In August, the military may have narrowly avoided catastrophe when an Army Shadow UAV collided mid-air with an Air Force C-130 in Afghanistan. More recently, an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper crashed in the Seychelles. And something happened to a U.S. top-secret stealth aircraft in Iran in December. The cause of that incident may never be released publicly.
Crash-rate comparisons between unmanned and manned aircraft vary. The Congressional Research Service in a July 2010 report would only say that UAV accidents are “multiple times higher” than their piloted counterparts.
“The UAV accident rate might be lower if these systems had been allowed to mature under [a] full development program,” the CRS report said.
The Defense Department is taking a two-pronged approach to the problem. The Army is responsible for looking for ground-based solutions. That would involve radars or other sensors placed near where a UAV is operating so it could scan the sky for other aircraft. The Navy and Air Force are researching onboard sense-and-avoid systems for aircraft that fly longer distances.
Col. Robert Sova, Army Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager for unmanned aerial systems, said these are not necessarily two different research tracks. It is sometimes assumed that ground-based systems will be a stopgap solution as the industry develops better onboard sensors. However, they will likely work in conjunction.
“They are complementary. … They will work together and in sync,” he said.