Regulatory, Technological Hurdles Stand In Way of Domestic Drone Mandate

By Stew Magnuson
If Congress gets its way, by Sept. 30, 2015, unmanned aerial vehicles will be seamlessly flying in national airspace alongside passenger jets, military aircraft and single-prop general aviation Pipers.

That deadline, enshrined in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passed Feb. 14, calls for the “full integration of [unmanned aerial systems] into the national airspace.”

That is a little more than three years away.

Before that mandate can be met, there are technological hurdles that must be overcome, and hundreds of pages of rules and regulations that must be written, experts said. Ethical and legal issues also need to be in the mix, attorneys have pointed out.

“There are a lot of tough issues that need to be answered with regard to sense-and-avoid capabilities, maneuvering capabilities, licensing certification, manufacturing standards and certifications,” said Sean Cassidy, national safety coordinator with the Airline Pilots Association of America.

“Having been around a lot a lot of the agencies in D.C. … nothing is ever as easy as it looks,” he added.

Along with the 2015 deadline, the act forces the FAA to take several other smaller steps. First, it must produce a comprehensive integration plan within nine months of the law’s enactment.

It calls for small UAS, under 55 pounds, to fly in national airspace within 27 months, and at heights of no more than 2,000 feet over the Arctic within one year. It must allow police and other public safety agencies to fly mini-drones, weighing 4.4 pounds or less, for the purposes of “saving lives or increasing public safety,” within 90 days.

Some of these requirements were already in the works. Officials from the FAA’s unmanned aircraft program office said at an industry conference in August that they were aiming to complete the small UAS rulemaking process by mid-2013.

Meanwhile, the rules for public safety agencies flying mini-unmanned aircraft aren’t too different from those of hobbyists, who are allowed to fly remote control planes up to 55 pounds, as long as they are within line of sight.

FAA Acting Administrator Michael Herta said in a statement that the agency “has a proven track record of safely introducing new technology and aircraft into the NAS, and I am confident we will successfully meet the challenges posed by UAS technology.”

Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said the military has already undergone a UAV revolution overseas. Now, the nation is poised to experience the same.

“Congress has kind of brought the revolution home,” he said.  

Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the Teal Group, said, “It clearly is an ambitious deadline and will push things. And the mandate comes after a long period when the FAA was moving at a slow pace toward UAS integration.”

There are two factors driving the need for faster airspace integration, he said. First, the military wants to train with its UAVs outside of the restricted airspace that lies above its domestic bases. Second, commercial and public sector interests want to employ the drones for a variety of applications. Police can dispatch them to conduct surveillance. The Forestry Service could fly them over areas at risk of catching fire. Energy companies can use them to hunt for natural resources or monitor pipelines.

Department of Homeland Security agencies have employed them for several years over the border lands and the Gulf of Mexico to look for illegal migrants or drug smugglers.
Manned aircraft can just as easily carry out these missions, Finnegan noted, but UAVs are less expensive to operate. They may be cheaper to fly, but that doesn’t mean they are always cheaper to buy. Opening up the airspace to remotely piloted aircraft is expected to be a boon to their manufacturers, but maybe not the ones that have traditionally dominated the military market, Finnegan said.

In overseas operations, the premium was placed on performance, he said. Cost was a secondary factor. Medium-altitude long-endurance Predators are expensive, and may be out of reach for companies that want to use them for such applications as environmental monitoring.

“The commercial market is going to be driven heavily by cost and so that also may change some of the players involved,” he said. “If UAVs are cheaper [than manned aircraft], companies will adopt them for that reason.”

Law enforcement agencies are particularly keen to get their hands on the technology. Only large cities or big agencies have the budgets to employ rotary-wing or fixed-wing aircraft to conduct overhead surveillance. The vast majority of jurisdictions cannot afford to fly, staff and maintain a helicopter. Unmanned aircraft promise to put this capability in the hands of even the smallest police agencies.

Another less talked about factor is the edge the United States currently has in the unmanned aerial vehicle industry, Finnegan said. There are fears that if the nation doesn’t move forward with domestic drones, it may lose out to competitors.

“If other countries start opening their airspace first, the initiative will gradually go overseas,” he added.

The FAA prior to the act was proceeding cautiously because it was not satisfied with the state of sense-and-avoid technology. This allows an unmanned vehicle to spot obstacles in the air, and make corrective measures so it does not collide with other aircraft.

There has been a two-pronged approach to this problem: onboard sensors and software, and ground-based systems. Ground-based plans involve radars that would peer up at the airspace surrounding a UAV and communicate to it when something might be in its path.

As far as technology, John Villasensor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California-Los Angeles, and a nonresident visiting fellow at Brookings, said there is enough time for the technical hurdles such as sense-and-avoid to be worked out. Companies developing these systems are highly motivated to get the work done. The FAA can also introduce the technology into the airspace in stages as it becomes more mature, he said.

However, what happens if a drone loses its communications link? The FAA has to ensure the safety of those transiting in the airspace, as well as those on the ground. UAVs flying above populated areas are problematic. If an operator loses his link to the drone, it has to be able to return to its base safely on its own, Villasensor pointed out.

While UAV manufacturers have been strong voices pushing the FAA to integrate national airspace, several organizations want to make sure all the fine points on the rules and regulations are worked out.

Along with the Airline Pilot’s Association of America, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have all spoken out on the issue. None have said they oppose airspace integration, but they all want the FAA to proceed cautiously.

Chris Stephenson, terminal technology coordinator with the Air Traffic Controllers Association, said at the industry conference last year that about every page of the controllers’ handbook will have to be rewritten to accommodate this new technology.

Cassidy said his organization and the pilots he represents want to be “confident that they are going to be robust systems and they are not going to be jeopardizing the traveling public, or the people on the ground for that matter.”

The association has a seat at the table during the rulemaking process. It doesn’t have any power to make final rules as far as remotely controlled aircraft pilot certifications, but it does want its concerns addressed.

There are added dimensions to operating UAVs that laymen don’t understand, he said. Once a pilot begins a mission, “it is pretty intense.”

There are still questions that need to be addressed before 2015.

Are they going to have licensing standards? Are they going to meet physical standards? Are they going to have a sufficient level of training so that they can maneuver these things in a safe manner, similar to guidelines established by the FAA?

The association is not saying that it is absolutely against the operation of UAS in national airspace.

“We just want to make sure that if they do come on line, that there is no distinction between somebody that is remotely operating it, and physically operating it in the vehicle,” Cassidy said.

“There is an awful lot of work to be done as the deadline approaches,” he added.

Paul Rosenzweig, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said this deadline can be met.

“Only in Washington is three plus years not enough time,” he said. “It is a complex issue and it deserves a great deal of attention, but my sense is that if the FAA has a will to get it done, it can and should be able to get it done,” he said at a Brookings Institute panel discussion about some of the legal and ethical issues the widespread use of drones by the government, private sector and individuals might pose.

The act is silent on legal issues such as privacy and how UAVs might be used. There is no single functioning government entity that can work on codes of conduct, panelists pointed out.

What are some of the questions? Can a private citizen send a small aircraft up to see what a neighbor is doing in his backyard? Police have the authority to fly over a home and look down at private property in a helicopter. Could that be misused with a smaller hovering drone that could linger outside a window and look in? Would police be able to remotely deploy nonlethal weapons from a UAV if officers were not on hand? Citizens, or journalists, may use spy drones to peer down at the activities of corporations or the government to hold them accountable.

“You can imagine a lot of malicious applications by individuals and corporations,” said Wittes.

Catherine Crump, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization is not opposed to law enforcement agencies using drones for legitimate purposes such as hostage situations, or staking out criminal enterprises when approved by a judge. Yet, it has always opposed stationary cameras placed on streets to monitor citizens. Using unmanned aircraft similarly to fly around a city for general searches would be out of bounds, she contended.

Her organization has already been approached by unmanned systems industry coalitions that want to address these privacy concerns head on. To do otherwise may risk the widespread employment of the technology.

Both Crump and Rosenzweig agreed that if legal and ethical issues aren’t worked out before the use of drones becomes widespread, then bad incidents could happen, and the public would reject their use. The years prior to 2015 should also be spent working on these issues.

They also agreed that this is not the FAA’s strong point. The agency is dedicated to wrangling with safety issues, not tackling the gray areas found in the world of law and ethics.                                                  

Topics: Aviation, C4ISR, Homeland Security, Air Transportation, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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