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Domestic Drones

■ In “Safety Concerns Still Blocking Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from National Airspace” , Stew Magnuson documents how the FAA, despite pressing national defense and homeland security requirements, continues to deny requests from the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and NASA to allow unmanned aircraft regular access to the national airspace. The FAA justifies blocking access, in part, based on the premise that the UAV accident rate exceeds that of manned aircraft. Safety statistics, however, suggest the concern is unfounded.

As the article notes, crash-rate comparisons between unmanned and manned aircraft vary, which is not surprising given how the term UAV includes everything from the Raven, a small, hand-launched model aircraft that flies a couple hundred feet above the ground to the RQ-4, a jet aircraft the size of an airliner that flies upwards of 60,000 feet. The article then cites a July 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report that alleges UAV accident rates are “multiple times higher” than their manned counterparts, a claim that seems to give credence to the FAA’s decision to block UAVs from enjoying regular access to national airspace.

The CRS report’s claim, however, is only true if one lumps all UAVs together, something that does not make sense from an airspace regulatory perspective. Indeed, UAVs weighing more than 1,320 pounds, referred to as Groups 4 and 5 under the Joint Unmanned Aircraft System (JUAS) Center of Excellence classification system, enjoy a safety record that is on par with manned equivalents.

Consider, for example, the Predator’s record versus that of the F-22 and the F-16. U.S. Air Force Safety Center statistics ( reveal that the Predator has endured 7.69 Class A accidents per 100,000 flight hours since a prototype was rushed afield to support combat operations over the former Yugoslavia in 1997. In comparison, the F-22 has suffered an accident rate of 6.37. Similarly, the F-16, during its first 15 years, suffered a Class A accident rate of 5.96. Unlike the F-16 and F-22, the Predator did not benefit from a full development program, yet it managed to achieve a comparable safety record. Furthermore, the vast majority of the Predator’s flight time was in combat; the F-22 has yet to fly a single combat mission.

The Predator’s safety record is all the more remarkable considering how unmanned technology is in its infancy compared to manned aircraft. “Right now, we’re in the nineteen-teens relative to manned aircraft,” observed Peter Singer (“Air Force F-35s, Drones May Square Off in Budget Battle). While the Predator’s safety record holds its own versus that of fourth-and-fifth generation manned fighters like the F-16 and F-22, its record far exceeds that of earlier generation manned aircraft. For example, F-80 and F-86, second generation fighters, respectively suffered Class A accident rates of 93.27 and 44.18. The F-100, a third generation aircraft, suffered an accident rate of 21.22, four times greater than the Predator.

In terms of fatalities, there’s also no contest. As the article notes, Defense Department drones have not caused a single unintended casualty in more than 3 million hours of operations.  In contrast, F-16 operations have led to 119 fatalities. “Unintended” is an important qualifier for the UAV statistic because drones have eliminated a substantial number of terrorists, key to our ensuring our nation’s security.

For more than a decade, UAVs have deployed alongside manned aircraft in the global war on terror. Group 4 and 5 UAVs fly from the same runways and in the same airspace, supporting the same missions, as their manned counterparts. For example, Reapers safely share the busy traffic patterns of major overseas bases with everything from fast fighter jets, to C-5s, to helicopters. Predators, Reapers, and their manned counterparts often find themselves closely stacked overhead.

The nature of airpower is changing. The U.S. Air Force now flies more than 60 unmanned aircraft combat air patrols daily, a number that quadrupled over the last six years. It now trains more unmanned than manned aviators. President Obama’s new defense strategy, which outlines a plan to increase investment in UAVs despite a declining defense budget, suggests UAVs will become a greater part of our force mix, perhaps even displacing manned aircraft in many core combat roles.

Continuing with the FAA’s current (and quite frankly, broken) UAV flight approval process, which, on average, takes more than six months to approve a single flight, is at odds with the defense and national security imperative of training our nation’s increasingly unmanned air forces. Moreover, it fails to allow for emerging commercial opportunities. Instead of lumping UAVs together and uniformly blocking regular access to national airspace, the FAA should re-evaluate its position. As a first step, the FAA could, for example, allow Group 4 and 5 UAVs, which are flown by rated pilots, many of whom have flown manned aircraft for thousands of hours all over the world, unimpeded access to the Class A airspace (controlled airspace flown under instrument flight rules) for transit and national disaster support. Safety statistics and our decade’s worth of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan show manned and unmanned aircraft can safety share the skies.

Lawrence Spinetta
Arlington, VA

Funds for STEM Education

■ I read your article, “It’s a Hobson’s Choice: Dollars for Defense or for Education,” with interest but beg to differ with your premise.  We keep hearing that education will wither and die without more federal funding. The majority of primary and secondary educational funding comes from local taxation on real estate with additional state funding of public universities. All Federal funds come with strings, either compliance or reporting tasks that add to support staff workload. Ask your local school for their budget to see costs allocated to teacher salaries compared to administration and other overhead.

Better yet, compare today’s educational system to what we had 50 years ago, when the best and brightest put us on the moon in a much shorter time than we can manage any major project these days (or even the I-95/495 mixing bowl).

I’ll bet our investment in education as a percentage of GDP was much less then. What we did have was leaders with vision who could motivate youngsters to want to learn to be part of a grand effort. Peel away our many layers of regulations, refocus our vision on a grand future (and parents communicate that to our youngsters), unbridle our teachers to restore discipline in our classrooms and basic science, technology, engineering, mathematics curricula in their lesson plans and you’ll get much better results than a trickle-down federal effort that allows everyone to feel good but accomplish nothing.

Neither federal nor state agencies need to worry about STEM, so long as parents are proactive about their children’s education.   

Jim Chamlee
Sent via email

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Research and Development

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