Magazine article National Defense

Drones over U.S. Soil Still Years Away, despite Congressional Mandate

Magazine article National Defense

Drones over U.S. Soil Still Years Away, despite Congressional Mandate

Article excerpt

The Federal Aviation Administration has less than a year left to meet its congressionally mandated 2015 deadline for clearing drones to fly over U.S. soil.

Though steps have been made in that direction recently, the FAA has consistently missed previous deadlines in the process to unlock a potential economic bonanza that unmanned aircraft could unleash. Given that drones cannot yet detect and avoid buildings or trees, much less other aircraft, it's unlikely Amazon will be delivering packages with quadcopters anytime soon.

As has occurred with many deadlines Congress levied on the FAA, the recent publication of the administration's unmanned aerial systems integration "roadmap" released Nov. 7 was a year late. It outlined an integration strategy that will not allow drones to fly alongside commercial aircraft until the end of the decade. The recent designation of six unmanned aerial systems test sites was to take place within 180 days of the Aug. 12, 2012 passing of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, but didn't occur for 18 months.

Many of the technologies necessary to allow drones to safely fly alongside manned, commercial aircraft are still under development, and federal policies to regulate the aircraft and certify pilots have lagged, said engineers familiar with the efforts.

Drones already are flown over the United States, but below 400 feet and within sight of the pilot. That standard, which mirrors the strictures placed on hobby aircraft, is not likely to change for years.

"Although aviation regulations have been developed generically for all aircraft, until recently these efforts were not done with UAS specifically in mind," the roadmap said. "This presents certain challenges because the underlying assumptions that existed during the previous efforts may not now fully accommodate UAS operations."

Some of the necessary regulatory clarifications are arcane, such as security requirements for certain elements of aircraft. For example, current standards require that an airplane cockpit have certain safety features, the roadmap said. But where is the "cockpit" of an unmanned aircraft?

"This presents a challenge for UAS considering that the cockpit or control station' may be located in an office building, in a vehicle or outside with no physical boundaries," the document said.

The FAA grants special permits to companies seeking to fly drones over the United States, but the process to achieve a waiver is cumbersome and often prohibitively expensive for small manufacturers, Jeremy Novarra, co-owner of Vanilla Aircraft, complained at a 2013 meeting of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

As of August, the FAA had issued 114 special airworthiness certificates to 22 different models of civil aircraft, more than half of which are unmanned. The pilots that fly them currently are certified with the same methods used to test manned-aircraft pilots, but specific regulations will likely be developed for pilots of different classes of unmanned aircraft, the roadmap said.

"Because of many distinct differences between UAS and manned aircraft, there are [also] required technologies that must be matured to enable the safe and seamless integration of UAS in the [National Airspace]," the roadmap said. "Research will be focused in the areas of sense and avoid, control and communications, and human factors."

The first step to surmounting those technological hurdles was taken at the 1 lth hour of 2013 when the FAA named six UAS test sites Dec. 30. Engineers at the sites--in North Dakota, Alaska, Virginia, Texas, Nevada and New York--will each study specific technological challenges associated with the safe operation of drones within U.S. airspace. That decision was to be made within the second half of 2012.

Michael Tuscan[degrees], president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International, called the announcement an "important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft. …

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