Defense Media Network

Controversy as Government Opens American Skies to Drones

Homeland security was on everyone’s mind three years ago when officials in Hawaii purchased a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), more commonly called a drone, as a high-tech law enforcement tool.

“They didn’t think it through,” said Jonathan Chuck, an aviation photographer who covers developments in the 50th state. “People in different offices should have been talking to one another and they weren’t.”

The drone in Hawaii is grounded, but America’s skies will soon be open to UAVs under a change in law that some say was caused by industry lobbying. In the meantime, the nation has no single policy on UAV operations in the National Airspace System (NAS), the formal term for the airways over the United States. The state of Hawaii spent $75,000 to purchase the drone – apparently, a one-of-a-kind aircraft with a wingspan of about 3 feet – to conduct aerial surveillance over Honolulu Harbor.

Today, state officials acknowledge they never consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which refuses to give the state permission to operate it. The FAA says the drone cannot be deployed in airspace near Honolulu International Airport because the skies are too crowded. “It works, we’re maintaining it, but we just can’t fly it,” Harbors Division Administrator Davis Yogi told the Honolulu Reporter. The drone, equipped with a high-tech camera to scan and track ground activity and touted as an anti-terrorism asset, was part of a $2 million Honolulu and Maui harbor security system that was financed with federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security. Officials made the purchase from a contractor in 2010. ” We made a mistake,” said Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, referring to the failure to touch base with the FAA.


Robots in the Sky

Around the country, local law enforcement officials are working to get into the drone business. Many are receiving grants and technical support from the Department of Homeland Security. At the same time, industry is talking about a bright future for robot aircraft in America’s skies – while safety and privacy advocates are signaling for caution.

On Feb. 14, President Barack Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The law requires the FAA to “find a safe, expedient solution” to integrate UAVs – in legal parlance called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – into the National Airspace System and to complete the process in 2015.

Occupy UC Davis from above

Students, faculty, alumni, and the community in general gathered to voice their disapproval of the pepper spraying of non-violent protestors on campus. This is a processed and stitched set of photos taken with Stewart Long’s helium balloon using a point-and-shoot camera and a smartphone. The ACLU and others worry about the privacy and safety of individual Americans with the government pushing for more unmanned aerial vehicles in the skies above the nation. Image courtesy of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) Mappers: MicheleTobias, Stewart Long, Liz Barry, Alex Mandel. Cartographer: Stewart Long

The new legislation will wipe away the lengthy approval process in current federal law that put about 300 drones into the air at locations around the country but forced Hawaii officials to keep their new aircraft grounded. The new law has an impact on 18,000 airports, 750 air traffic control facilities, 4,500 air navigation facilities and 48,000 FAA employees who administer airline, general aviation and some military flying. As an initial step to comply with the legislation, the FAA in March began a search to identify six drone test ranges. The locations are to be announced in June – localities are lobbying, now, to be chosen – and preliminary flight trials mixing drones and manned aircraft will begin shortly thereafter.

In a related development, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is testing an Ikhana MQ drone, a derivative of the MQ-9 Reaper, with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) that will permit navigation using the Next-Gen air traffic control system that the FAA is introducing in the coming years. Aircraft operating in certain U.S. airspace will be required to have ADS-B devices by January 2020. NASA experts believe the Ikhana tests pave the way for drones to have the same navigation capabilities as airliners.

The legislation is a sure sign that unmanned systems are here to stay and will have important duties to perform in homeland security, law enforcement, environmental monitoring, and other fields. Opening the skies to drones was a goal of the Unmanned Systems Caucus, co-haired by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, an informal group of lawmakers who support expanded opportunities for UAV manufacturers. McKeon’s district includes Palmdale, Calif., where some drones are manufactured.

An April 26 opinion column in the Washington Post by T. W. Farnam refers to the “influence industry” in Washington that is said to have gotten the legislation passed “when no one [was] watching.” Others argue that some method of opening the National Airspace System to UAVs was always inevitable and was only a matter of time.

One group that has questions is the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus headed by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. Markey said in a statement that he has concerns “about unmanned surveillance aircraft looking down on ordinary citizens in their back yards.” In a letter to administration officials, Markey and Barton wrote that the FAA “has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected and that the public is fully informed about who is using drones in public airspace and why.”

A program by the Seattle Police Department, similar to the one in Hawaii and also funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, has prompted an expression of concern from the American Civil Liberties Union. An ACLU statement last December stressed that current laws are “not strong enough to ensure that the technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values.”


Drone Safety Concerns

Another issue facing FAA acting administrator Michael P. Huerta – who is the administration’s nominee to fill the top civil aviation job on a permanent basis – is the safe operation of UAVs in America’s skies.

It appears little has changed since a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan analytical arm of Congress, found that UAVs have an accident rate 100 percent higher than manned aircraft.

The United States has not experienced a major mid-air collision in this century, but at a time when airline flying is safer than ever, statistics on drone safety are elusive and anecdotal evidence suggests that a UAV is more likely than a manned aircraft to crash or go out of control. In Afghanistan, where U.S. forces use drones widely, an MQ-7 Shadow drone collided with a C-130 Hercules last August. The cargo plane made an emergency landing but no one was injured.

Airline pilots are among those raising safety concerns. Although pilots are tested on safety issues in order to keep their licenses, no standard rules have been implemented for ground-based controllers of UAVs. The FAA certifies airliners as being unlikely to have a mechanical failure, but no standard has been written yet to certify drones. No current standard exists for operating drones at night or in bad weather under instrument flight rules. Drones typically do not carry the Traffic Collision and Avoidance System required for airlines and other larger aircraft, although the Air Force has installed TCAS on a trial basis on the RQ-4A Global Hawk. It’s unclear how the changing flight environment will apply to the very smallest UAVs, including micro-drones that can be held in one hand.

“We’re entering a new era,” said FAA spokesperson Laura Brown. In the period between now and the 2015 target date for UAV integration, homeland security will be vying with privacy and safety concerns as the nation’s policymakers carve out a pathway ahead.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...