Magazine article National Defense

Not Cleared to Fly

Magazine article National Defense

Not Cleared to Fly

Article excerpt

Worries about mid-air collisions keep civilian drones grounded

SAN DIEGO - Local governments and unmanned aircraft suppliers look forward to the day when legions of drones can fly over the national airspace to survey fires, spot displaced citizens in a natural disaster or pinpoint criminals in a police investigation.

But for now, unmanned aircraft are still grounded.

The agency that controls the domestic airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration, said drones are not yet ready to conduct such missions.

One of the FAA's primary concerns is that drones lack the ability to see other aircraft and avoid deadly collisions. Agency officials have said drones must have the same ability as manned aircraft to prevent collisions, meaning they must be able to sense potential obstacles, detect the risk of a crash and maneuver well clear.

Equipping unmanned aircraft, or UAVs, with this capability will require new technology and revised policies, said John Walker, chairman of the RTCA special committee 203, a group that advises the Federal Aviation Administration.

RTCA Inc is a private, not-for-profit corporation that develops recommendations regarding communications, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management system issues.

"There has never been anything as complex" in the aviation world, Walker asserted during an interview.

The unmanned aircraft industry may wait for another decade before civilian drones proliferate in U.S. skies, Walker said. Standards that would allow the FAA to certify drones will likely not be written until 2019, although he views that date as the "worst case scenario."

Concerns about mid-air collisions is just one of the many barriers that still prevent drones from flying in the national airspace.

On the technical side, another challenge is access to radio spectrum, said Basil Papadales, principal with Mojre Inc, a UAV consulting firm in Issaquah, Wash.

"Radio frequency is a problem because safe UAV operations depends on having reliable communications when and where it's needed," he told National Defense. "As cell phones and Wi-Fi computers proliferate, the RF spectrum is getting crowded."

Additionally, the UAV industry doesn't have the money to purchase expensive spectrum, Papadales asserted. The industry depends on using military radio channels, but once companies begin operating in domestic airspace, they will have to get their own.

Another impediment to getting drones off the ground is a lack of coordination among agencies and industry groups, said Dale Tietz, president of New Vistas International, an aerospace consulting firm in Austin, Texas.

The FAA is "oversubscribed" and needs help from industry and other government agencies, he said The Defense Department is working on organizing its own UAV efforts, but has not merged with other agencies to solve these problems.

"Industry and government regulators are not efficiently organized and funded to accelerate access to the national airspace," Tietz asserted.

Papadales believes the impetus is still on the FAA to move faster, and asserted that the agency "has shown no motivation." The problem has been known for more than a decade, but the Defense Department and the FAA "chose to ignore it," he said. "If current policies stay in place, I don't know if there will be a solution."

In the near term, only small, unmanned aircraft are likely to fly in the national airspace, said Walker.

He said the FAA is "in the process of establishing an unmanned aircraft systems advisory rulemaking committee and will ask industry to make recommendations concerning small UAVs." He noted that small drones have been successful in Japan, where they are used for crop dusting.

"You will see small unmanned aircraft systems as the first category that will be used for business," Walker said.

Papadales's company, Moire Inc., predicted in a 2006 study that 96 percent of unmanned aircraft produced from 2007 to 2016 would be small, low altitude drones that fly between 1,000 and 18,000 feet. …

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