The Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate is setting up a new small unmanned aerial vehicle program ahead of the technology’s expected integration into U.S. national airspace.
The small unmanned aerial systems program will have two main goals, said John Appleby, border and maritime security division program manager of the directorate’s Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency.
One will be to serve as an information clearing house for the potentially thousands of law enforcement or first responder agencies that will want to employ small aerial drones. The other goal is to field a small tactical UAV for Border Patrol agents, he said at the Counter Terrorism Expo in Washington, D.C.
Congress in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passed earlier this year forced the FAA to speed up its process to integrate unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies. Small UAVs — defined as those weighing up to 55 pounds — will be the first to be widely deployed.
The law says the agency must finish its small UAS rulemaking process and allow the drones to fly at heights up to 2,000 feet by May 2014. It also permitted public safety agencies to fly micro-UAVs weighing as much as 4.4 pounds beginning last May.
This is expected to be a boon for the vast majority of police and fire departments, said Appleby. Buying and maintaining a police helicopter is beyond most of their means, and about 99 percent of them have no overhead surveillance capabilities, he added.
“DHS needs these systems, and so does the external first responder community. That’s what this program is all about,” he said.
The office will be running field tests on small fixed- and rotary-wing UAVs beginning later this year so DHS agencies and local, state and other public safety entities can look at the data and make informed decisions on what aircraft to purchase, he said.
The vendors’ aircraft will be put through a series of tests that will last about one week. They will then receive a report card at the end of the demonstration to see how they did. For the manufacturers, it will be an opportunity to get a “stamp of approval,” he said. Customers can examine the data and make decisions on whether the aircrafts’ specifications meet their needs.
“The idea is to build a knowledge and information base that will allow us to make decisions and move forward,” he said.
First responders may have entirely different applications in mind than police agencies such as monitoring major events, disaster damage assessments, searching for fires and nuclear accidents. These missions will require different types of sensors, he noted.
“All of these kind of things will be game changers with the deployment of these aircraft around the country,” he said. But “they are going to need a lot of advice and a lot of help to get into this business,” he said.
As for the Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection has the largest air force of any law enforcement agency in the world, but for agents in remote locations, help is still too far away in many cases, Appleby said.
“Agents are out there typically, with no air support at all,” he said.
In the Tucson sector, for example, dispatching a helicopter can take 20 minutes or longer — if they are available, and they are not always so, he said. Border Patrol agents want the ability to launch their own backpackable tactical UAVs within one minute so they can see what is happening beyond their line of sight.
The program will be looking at high technology readiness level aircraft that have either been widely fielded in overseas military operations, or are similarly close in maturity, he said.
It will also have to be highly ruggedized with a proven track record of low maintenance because DHS agencies don’t have the resources and staff to fix systems that are still in development, he said.
Meanwhile, the office is looking at ways to improve CBP’s fleet of medium-altitude, long-endurance Predator drones. Wide area surveillance is a huge need in the maritime and border environment, he said.
“We have no capability today,” he said. The sensors CBP flies today give operators the so-called “soda straw effect” — a narrow view of what is below.
“We need something to cue those imagers.”