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FAA Pressured To Approve Unmanned Flights Over US

June 15, 2010

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now under pressure to issue flying rights for pilotless aircrafts over the skies in the United States.

The FAA has been asked to issue these rights for a range of unmanned planes to carry out civilian and law-enforcement functions.  However, officials are worried that they might plow into airliners, cargo planes and corporate jets that zoom around at high altitudes, or helicopters and hot air balloons that fly as low as a few hundred feet off the ground.

These unmanned aircraft come in a variety of sizes.  Some are as big as a small airliner, and others are the size of a backpack.  The tiniest are small enough to fly through a house window.

Tornado researchers want to send them into storms to gather data.  Energy companies plan to use them to help monitor pipelines.  State police want to use them to capture images of speeding cars’ license plates.  Local police hope to use them to help track fleeing suspects.

The robot planes have advantages over humans for jobs that are dirty, dangerous or dull.  The planes can also often cost less than piloted aircraft and can stay in the air longer.

“There is a tremendous pressure and need to fly unmanned aircraft in (civilian) airspace,” Hank Krakowski, FAA’s head of air traffic operations, told European aviation officials recently. “We are having constant conversations and discussions, particularly with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, to figure out how we can do this safely with all these different sizes of vehicles.”

There are two different types of unmanned aircrafts:  Drones, which are automated planes programmed to fly a particular pattern or mission, and aircraft that are remotely controlled from the ground.

The FAA promised defense officials last year that it would have a plan this year.  The agency has reams of safety regulations that govern every aspect of civilian aviation but is just beginning to write regulations for unmanned aircraft.

“I think industry and some of the operators are frustrated that we’re not moving fast enough, but safety is first,” Krakowski said in an interview with the Associated Press (AP). “This isn’t Afghanistan. This isn’t Iraq. This is a part of the world that has a lot of light airplanes flying around, a lot of business jets.”

Another concern is the prospect of losing communication between the plane and the operators who remotely control them.  Another is a lack of firm separation of aircraft at lower altitudes, away from major cities and airports.  Planes that enter these zones are not required to have collision warning systems or transponders. 

The Predator B, for instance, can fly for 20 hours without refueling, compared to a helicopter’s average flight time of just over two hours.  Homeland Security wants to expand their use along the borders of Mexico and Canada, and along coastlines for spotting smugglers of drugs and illegal aliens.  The Coast Guard hopes to use them for search and rescue.

In 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board held a forum on safety concerns associated with unmanned aircrafts after a Predator crashed in Arizona.  The board concluded that the ground operator remotely controlling the plane accidentally cut off the plane’s fuel.

Texas officials, including Governor Rick Perry, have been leaning on the FAA to approve requests to use unmanned aircraft along the Texas-Mexico border.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers that safety concerns are behind the delays.  Texas Senator John Cornyn is blocking a Senate confirmation vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee for the No. 2 FAA job, Michael Huerta, to keep the pressure on.

Former FAA administrator and president of the Aerospace Industries Association Marion Blakey said the agency has been granting approvals on a case-by-case basis but the pace is picking up.

Some of the concerns will be lifted when the FAA moves from its current radar-based air traffic control system to a GPS technology-based one.  Once that takes place, each aircraft will be able to advise controllers and other aircraft of their location.  However, that is a decade away.

Michael Barr, a University of Southern California aviation safety instructor, said the matter should not be rushed.

“All it takes is one catastrophe,” Barr told AP. “They’ll investigate, find they didn’t do it correctly, there’ll be an outcry and it will set them back years.”

Image Caption: The MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

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