More Questions Than Answers Over Unmanned Vehicles in U.S. Skies (UPDATED)
By Dan Parsons
The advent of unmanned aerial systems flying over U.S. territory is a revolution in aviation comparable to the Wright brothers’ first flight and development of pressurized cabins, but after repeated delays, Federal Aviation Administration officials still don't have a timeline for when it will occur.
“This is the biggest challenge we’ve had in aviation in a very long time,” Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s UAS integration office, said Feb. 13 at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s program review in McLean, Va. “Something new is in the air, or, should I say, something will soon be.”
The FAA must be able to accommodate unmanned aerial systems in the national airspace by 2015, a deadline put in place by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act last year. The law requires the FAA to establish a pilot program to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system at six test ranges. The law required the sites to be established “not later than 180 days” after the passage of the FAA bill, or Aug. 12.
That deadline has long passed and the FAA still does not know where the test ranges will be located. The screening information request (SIR) — a document that will outline the characteristics those sites must have — was released Feb. 14, Williams said. An SIR is equivalent to a Defense Department request for proposals.
“We’re getting closer every day, very close, in fact [to test site selection],” he said, adding that the document was ready for release in July 2012. Williams did not comment on the reason for the delay.
The test sites are envisioned as places where remotely piloted aircraft can fly with few restrictions, and crucial data on the technologies that will allow them to travel among regular air traffic are gathered. One of the main issues is how unmanned aircraft will "see" other aircraft and take corrective measures to avoid collisions — better known as sense-and-avoid systems.
There are several domestic government-operated test-flight centers available to companies testing UAV technologies. But they are often prohibitively expensive for smaller companies to use and access is limited for companies that are not located nearby, said Ronald Storm, director of the Dayton, Ohio, operations for Aptima, a company that specializes in machine-operator interface technologies. It can cost $5,000 per day to rent time on a government test-flight range, he said.
Companies large and small have to cut through massive webs of red tape to fly experimental designs at the ranges if they can get to them and afford the expense — a problem that, under current FAA guidelines, the six new test ranges likely will not mitigate, Storm said.
“The additional national test sites will certainly reduce the logistical burden of travelling to the available test sites,” he said. “But there are still a lot of steps that are necessary to actually fly. Moving forward, though, it can only get easier.”
Williams had precious few answers about the process for concerned industry representatives at the conference. He declined to provide information on the timeline for integration, public comment on test site selection, the selection itself or other milestones until after the SIR release.
A day later, the document laid out what Williams would not. Once the FAA receives proposals for test ranges, it will answer questions for applicants through May 6, when final consideration will begin. Six other transaction agreements (OTA) will be issued to qualified applicants that lay out the specifications of how each test site will be operated. Those OTAs will be issued Sept. 27.
In selecting the sites, the FAA will consider geographic and climate diversity and the location of ground infrastructure and research needs. Defense Department and NASA officials will also have a say in the selection process.
Another hurdle to flying UAVs in U.S domestic airspace are concerns that their onboard sensors could invade citizens’ right to privacy. While the FAA has no authority to implement or enforce regulations regarding personal privacy, the issue is a central focus of the integration process, Williams said. States and local governments are considering preemptively enacting legislation to limit the use of UAVs for surveillance of private citizens, in addition to six bills that would govern the same subject introduced during the previous Congress, he said.
“Strong industry standards that are voluntarily implemented and audited by a third party will go a long way to mitigate concerns over privacy,” Williams said.
Parallel to the SIR response process, the FAA is soliciting input on policies related to privacy and data collection at the site. Each test site operator will be required to
Regardless of concerns, everyone involved with the development and use of unmanned aerial vehicles envisions not only their continued use but substantial proliferation.
As do U.S. military leaders, Williams and industry officials foresee “explosive growth” in UAS use for various purposes ranging from domestic search and rescue, border patrol and firefighting to aerial management of natural resources.
Yamaha Motor Corp. in November tested a remote-controlled helicopter in California to crop dust almonds, pistachios and grapes. The same system has been used for agricultural purposes in Japan for 15 years as a solution to a rapidly aging farming population, said Steve Markofski, a corporate planner for the company’s U.S. arm.
Unmanned systems flying over the United States for similar purposes could spur $90 billion in economic activity within 10 years, he said.
Williams said the FAA has more than a half-century of experience “integrating new technologies into the national airspace,” which gives officials confidence that they could meet the ultimate 2015 deadline. Still, FAA and other government officials are moving deliberately but cautiously toward allowing unmanned aircraft to share the skies with commercial airliners.
“UASs, like every person or product operating in the [national airspace] contribute risk that must be indentified and mitigated,” he said. “Together we will safely and efficiently integrate UAS.”
Update: This article has been updated with information from the FAA's test-site selection SIR document, released Feb 14.
Correction: The original story misspelled the name of Aptima, a technology engineering firm.
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.