Aug 14, 2012
Recently released FAA documents have raised yet more questions surrounding the opening up of US skies to unmanned surveillance drones.
Thousands of pages of FAA experimental drone flight records that were obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) detail just how complicated it would be to operate thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles safely without spending billions of dollars.
The documents, received by CIR through the Freedom of Information Act, discuss at length the fact that drones do not have sophisticated collision-avoidance systems and pose more of a threat to other aircraft because their pilots are on the ground with limited visual contact.
Experienced California mechanic and pilot Mel Beckman, tells CIR that drone aircraft are problematic because pilots are required to “see and avoid,” – in other words, literally keep an eye out for other aircraft.
“There’s no way for a drone pilot to do that,” Beckman said. “He’s on the ground, and he’s looking through a small aperture. Yes, the camera can swivel a little bit, but it’s nothing like the panoramic view the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) envisioned when they expected pilots to maintain their own visual surveillance.”
“There’s a big disconnect between ground pilots and the aircraft they’re flying,” pilot Beckman said. “The regulations currently don’t accommodate that.”
The FAA documents estimate that an outlay of $2 billion is needed in order to begin development of a satisfactory safety program for drones. In a document dated 2008, the Government Accountability Office estimated that such a program would not be ready before 2020.
The documents also cover numerous instances of companies testing drones. The FAA strictly confined the testing to areas of space where there was no other aircraft, precisely because the drones have no capabilities to avoid collisions. In numerous tests the drones STILL crashed into other objects.
“Without the ability to see and avoid, manufacturers rely on “chase planes” with a human pilot or ground observers who can visually track the drone” writes CIR Homeland Security reporter G.W. Schulz.
Over heavily built up areas with restricted airspace, the margin of safety for operation of drones is even narrower.
“By the time you avoid all of those areas and try to thread the needle, you’re limiting aircraft operations into a very narrow airspace, and you’re also compressing traffic into a very narrow corridor,” said Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic services and modernization for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “That reduces the margin of safety for many operators.” she added, noting that the technology will need to be “as reliable as the human eye” in order to be safe.
Despite such warnings, FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta noted last week during the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Las Vegas, that over the next three years drones will begin rolling out. He added that “building human consensus … is an equally important task and unbelievably complicated.”
Huerta’s comments attracted criticism from some experts in the field, including Paul Schultz, CEO of Hawaiya Technologies in Aiea, Hawaii and a UAV manufacturer.
“This is all just happy talk. There are so many complex issues, like safety, related to implementation of UAVs that they haven’t even touched yet, like how anyone will pay for this.” Schultz said.
“Unmanned drones operating with airliners?” Schultz questioned. “Do you know how easy it is right now for some crazy person to take control of a drone through its GPS system? We’ll need to add coding to GPS to prevent such actions. Sure the technology exists, but to implement it nationwide is a huge problem.”
As Schultz notes, sophistictaed drones can also be “spoofed” using relatively basic components, meaning anyone could potentially take full control of the vehicle.
University of Texas Professor Todd Humphreys recently testified to Congress on this very matter.
Manufacturers of drones, almost exclusively defense contractors, have spent $2.3 million so far on lobbying Congress to open up US airspace.
Steve Watson is the London based writer and editor for Alex Jones’ Infowars.com, and Prisonplanet.com. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Politics at The University of Nottingham in England.