Defense Media Network

Domestic Unmanned Aircraft Systems Are Coming

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Over 30 years ago while working at Rockwell International’s Space Division in Downey, Calif., I wrote a briefing book for members of Congress about space program benefits. The book’s section on Rockwell’s newly developed NAVSTAR GPS system of global positioning satellites (the first experimental Block I GPS satellite launched in 1978, with the first modern Block II satellite launch occurring in 1989) mentioned in passing the possibility of civil uses for this emerging defense navigation technology. But as optimistic as the program’s advocates were at the time about potential dual-uses, we had no clue that GPS systems would rapidly become ubiquitous in automobiles and boats, as well as on hiking trails, in banking systems, mobile phone operations, and even in the control of power grids.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection UAS stands ready for patrol along the southern border of the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Gerald L Nino

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection UAS stands ready for patrol along the southern border of the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Gerald L Nino

One wonders if we may be in the same position with another developing technology: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). UAS, commonly referred to as drones – consisting of ground stations and other elements besides the actual aircraft – are well known for their role in military operations. The missile firing General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator UAS, in use since 1995, has seen combat over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. And the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk has been used extensively in intelligence and target surveillance operations.  But the notion that UAS are primarily military use systems is soon to end. Prodded by a congressional mandate for the Federal Aviation Administration to issue regulatory rules enabling the safe and routine integration of UAS in our domestic air space by 2015, potential civil and commercial uses of UAS beyond ongoing uses by government and law enforcement agencies are now in the public limelight. What comes next may be an explosion of civil UAS activities – with up to 30,000 UAS in the U.S. air space – that is, if basic concerns about privacy and safety are adequately addressed in this rulemaking process.

In a widely discussed market forecast, the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group estimates that spending on unmanned aerial vehicles – the flying component of UAS – will almost double over the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totaling just over $89 billion in the next 10 years. Adding to what is expected to be continued growth in the military sector is a wide variety of current and anticipated civil applications of UAS, which are defined as fully autonomous aircraft, and characterized by their varieties of sizes and low costs of operations. Representative examples include:

  • U.S. Customs and Border Patrol owns ten Predator UAS that are used to spot drug smuggling tunnels; video dams, bridges, levees, and riverbeds at risk of flooding; and to support other law enforcement and land management activities.
  • NASA’s Global Hawk UAS has flown over hurricanes in an effort to better understand how tropical storms form and develop into major hurricanes.
  • Louisville, Ky., Emergency Management officials used Drone Systems’ Datron Scout UAS to help them evaluate safely from the air a chemical train derailment without risking the lives of emergency personnel.
  • A Boeing Insitu ScanEagle UAS was operated by the University of Alaska to map the progress of wildfires in the Alaska wilderness.
  • University of Colorado scientists flew an Aerosonde UAS in the Arctic to conduct research on the katabatic winds’ relationship to Antarctic sea ice formation.
  • The Utah Highway Patrol has used photos taken from the Leptron UAS to quickly recreate car accidents, aiding in the accident investigation process.
  • The University of California and NASA have been testing UAS in California to monitor the irrigation needs of grape vineyards and pistachio crops.
  • A Vanderbilt University archaeologist used a semi-autonomous UAS to scan a colonial town from the 1500s that had been built over an Incan settlement in Peru.
  • Google and the World Wildlife Fund will begin flying UAS over parts of Africa and Asia to help monitor and catch wildlife poachers who kill endangered tigers, rhinos and elephants.
  • The Department of Defense wants to use 144 operating locations in the United States for UAS training and systems verification.
  • FedEx officials have talked about wanting to have a fleet of UAS to help with their deliveries.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) projects that by 2025, due in part to UAS integration in the domestic air space, approximately 100,000 UAS-related jobs will be created in the United States. To date, the FAA has limited air space access for UAS applications to government and law enforcement agencies and researchers on a case-by-case basis with Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA). The FAA has long allowed a growing cadre of hobbyist operators of model airplanes and helicopters to fly their small UAS below 400 feet as long as they are not flown for commercial purposes, out of line of sight, and away from populated areas and airports. In Congress, which has active UAS caucuses in the House of Representatives – Co-chairs Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) – and Senate – Co-Chairs Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va). – the desire to speed UAS integration led to language in last year’s FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which requires a three year rule making process by the FAA to allow UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) by 2015.

The swirling circulation pattern of tropical storm Frank off the southwestern coast of Baja California was captured by Ames Research Center's HDV camera mounted on the aft fuselage of NASA's Global Hawk unmanned research aircraft, Aug. 28, 2010. NASA/NOAA photo

The swirling circulation pattern of tropical storm Frank off the southwestern coast of Baja California was captured by Ames Research Center’s HDV camera mounted on the aft fuselage of NASA’s Global Hawk unmanned research aircraft, Aug. 28, 2010. NASA/NOAA photo

The FAA legislation requires the agency to meet a number of interim milestones in its rule making process, including a plan for full UAS/NAS integration and selection of six sites around the country where the FAA could test fly UAS and collect data on their performance. Another big milestone expected to be reached sometime next year is a rule for allowing small UAS into the NAS for commercial purposes. To date, the first two milestones have not been met. AVUSI Government Relations Manager Ben Gielow says the holdup is being prompted by concern within the Obama administration that the issue of ensuring privacy must be addressed up front, and convincingly so. “It’s our understanding that the FAA is ready to go [on the test site announcement],” he says. “They are ready to get the test sites out for public comment, but in fact they are being told by a higher power that you need to more closely review privacy issues and come up with some sort of proposal for how you will deal with this issue.”

Civil libertarians have raised the specter of UAS being used by paparazzi to invade the privacy of celebrities – the celebrity news outlet TMZ denied in November that they had submitted a UAS flight permit application to the FAA – and by police forces in broader assaults on personal privacy. To wit, in a December 2011 policy paper, Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump of the American Civil Liberties Union argue, “The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying video surveillance machines threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance, police fishing expeditions, and abusive use of these tools in a way that could eventually eliminate the privacy Americans have traditionally enjoyed in their movements and activities.” Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently raised hackles when he stated, “I’m not encouraging, but I would predict, the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring down a drone that’s hovering his house is gonna be a folk hero in this country.” In response to beliefs like these, UAS advocates argue that existing law, including the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, effectively protects the public from privacy invasion. Some also add that if privacy is to be addressed further, the FAA, whose mission is primarily focused on aviation safety, may not be the right government agency to regulate privacy issues.

The narrow fuselage of NASA'S Ikhana unmanned science aircraft, a civil version of General Atomics' Predator B, is evident in this view from underneath. NASA is testing the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system, that will permit navigation using the Next-Gen air traffic control system aboard the aircraft. The safety issue of unmanned aircraft in American skies has taken a back seat to the constitutional issues. NASA photo by Tony Landis

The narrow fuselage of NASA’S Ikhana unmanned science aircraft, a civil version of General Atomics’ Predator B, is evident in this view from underneath. NASA is testing the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system, that will permit navigation using the Next-Gen air traffic control system aboard the aircraft. The safety issue of unmanned aircraft in American skies has taken a back seat to the constitutional issues. NASA photo by Tony Landis

Apart from the issue of how privacy is dealt with, it is interesting to note that a 2012 Monmouth University Poll found that Americans largely support using UAS in most circumstances, with a couple glaring exceptions. The poll found 80 percent public support for UAS rescue missions, 67 percent in favor of law enforcement efforts to locate criminals, and 64 percent support for UAS use in patrolling our borders. But less than a quarter of the people surveyed would approve UAS use for the issuance of speeding tickets, and 64 percent would be concerned about their privacy if law enforcement UAS had high-tech cameras.

The issue of UAS safety has many dimensions. First is the concern that UAS are unable to autonomously sense and avoid other aircraft. AVUSI’s Gielow notes that “the military is doing a lot of work in sense and avoid technology,” including Army and Marine Corps research on ground based radars that “provide an aerial view of what’s in the airspace.” He notes the Air Force is also working on “sense and avoid” systems that would be a part of the NextGen upgrade to our air traffic control system, using Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, consisting of a high-integrity GPS navigation source and a datalink. ADS-B will be required on all manned aircraft by 2020, but all aircraft need to be equipped with the system to ensure that in-sky collisions are avoided.

A second safety concern is the possibility that the command and control of a UAS could be hijacked by a GPS signal counterfeiter or spoofer. In a widely publicized demonstration conducted last year by the University of Texas Radionavigation Laboratory at the White Sands Missile Range, a University spoofer commandeered an Adaptive Flight Hornet Mini UAS and forced a crash landing. Todd Humphreys, the professor who led this demonstration, told the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management last summer, “Constructing from scratch a sophisticated GPS spoofer like the one developed by the University of Texas is not easy. It is not within the capability of the average person on the street, or even the average Anonymous hacker. But the emerging tools of software-defined radio and the availability of GPS signal simulators are putting spoofers within reach of ordinary malefactors.” To this point, Gielow observes that the White Sands experiment was conducted in a controlled environment that was conducive to the success of the experiment. “If you are going to somehow try to overwhelm the command and control of an unmanned aircraft, you would need to have your handling device pointed directly at the aircraft, which is very difficult to do, especially at high altitudes or if you don’t know precisely where it is,” says Gielow. “You have to know exactly the frequency it was operating under. You either have to jam their GPS or somehow overpower it, and most unmanned aircraft that I’m aware of include more than just GPS for navigation. They either have different backup systems or extra redundancies so they don’t just rely on one type of technology. I think that this issue is probably a little bit overblown. Anything made with electronics is certainly susceptible to malfunctioning or potential hacking, but I think that there are means that already exist today by which you can mitigate those risks to an acceptable level.”

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Predator B UAS flies 20,000 feet above the Souris River in Minot, N.D. The UAS broadcasted photos and video in real-time to emergency workers on the ground. The UAS assisted FEMA and state emergency responders during some of the worst flooding the region has seen in decades. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Predator B UAS flies 20,000 feet above the Souris River in Minot, N.D. The UAS broadcasted photos and video in real time to emergency workers on the ground. The UAS assisted FEMA and state emergency responders during some of the worst flooding the region has seen in decades. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

There is also a law enforcement concern that UAS might be deliberately used as a weapon. In 2011, the FBI arrested Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26-year-old al Qaeda sympathizer planning to use an explosive-filled remote controlled airplane to attack the Pentagon and Capitol Building. Ferdaus later pled guilty and is serving a 17-year sentence. Wells Bennett, a visiting fellow in National Security Law at the Brookings Institution, wrote in his December 2012 study, “Unmanned at Any Speed: Bringing Drones into Our National Airspace,” that the Ferdaus case illustrates “the smallest UAS out there are sold with no security protocols whatsoever – though to be sure, many other potentially misused technologies also change hands freely.”

Bennett contends in his study that the FAA is facing a tradeoff between a looser regulatory regime that “means more benefits for the public, lower end-user costs, and a boon to an industry eager to realize its growth potential – but also more risk to safety and civil liberties,” and a tighter one that leaves “the public getting less bang for its technology buck, and the UAS sector growing at a slower clip – but with fewer drones crashing, and fewer citizens complaining about unwanted surveillance or insecure networks.” He concludes that the tight rulemaking deadlines of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 will lead to difficulties in addressing the hard issues of UAS integration. That is why some observers believe Congress will allow the FAA some slack in meeting the scheduled regulatory deadlines as long as progress is being made.  And adds Gielow, “We are hopeful now that FAA Adminstrator Michael Huerta has been confirmed to a five-year term (on Jan. 1, 2013), that he will have the ability to make these tough decisions and really start moving things forward.”

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Edward Goldstein has more than 20 years' experience in the U.S. space community. From...