Pentagon to FAA: Send in the drones

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The Pentagon wants to “desegregate” national air space. A spokesman made the announcement last week at a robotic technology conference held in Washington, D.C. Military officials say that they are working with the FAA to integrate almost 7,500 remotely piloted drones, designed for military operations overseas, into the civilian fleet of manned aircraft here at home.

The drones would be used by military and private agencies for surveillance and disaster relief purposes, raising privacy as well as safety concerns regarding the widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over the mainland.

With few exceptions, the Federal Aviation Administration has not allowed remotely piloted aircraft in national airspace on a wide scale because of their traditionally inadequate “detect, sense and avoid” technology to prevent midair collisions. The UAV industry is now assuring the FAA that it is testing solutions to that problem.

Good news, considering Congress just passed the FAA Reauthorization Act, requiring the FAA to have a plan for the widespread introduction of drones into national airspace by 2015. The law also directs the FAA, by the end of the year, to expedite its process for authorizing the use of drones by federal, state and municipal police agencies. The agency must establish six test-flight ranges across the country to develop protocol that harmonizes manned and unmanned air traffic.

Currently, the FAA issues special certifications which can cover multiple flights by more than one UAV over a particular geographic area. It does this on a case-by-case basis, mostly to facilitate surveillance missions carried out by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The CBP – a department within Homeland Security – flies 11 Predator drones, principally for counternarcotics surveillance, over the nation’s north and south borders under four long-term certificates. Officials say the drones can be used for various public-safety and emergency-management missions on a short-term basis if they are issued separate certificates for each mission.

The FAA said that it issued 313 certificates in 2011 to police departments, government agencies and research institutions to fly drones over the United States. It says 295 of these certificates were still active at the end of the year. The FAA, however, will not disclose who got the certificates and why. The agency will disclose raw numbers and its own projections that 30,000 drones could be jetting about the nation’s skies by 2020.

The scope of the Pentagon’s ambitions for a domestic UAV program has privacy advocates worried. The FAA’s opaqueness about its certification process hasn’t been helping matters either. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is suing the agency to find out who holds UAV permissions.

“We need a list so we can ask [each agency], ‘What are your policies on drone use? How do you protect privacy? How do you ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment?’ ” said EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch.

Groups like the EFF and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are worried that the widespread use of drones by police departments and private firms will undermine constitutional guarantees of privacy.

Speaking to a crowd of hundreds of military contractors and robotics industry insiders at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International annual program review conference, Mary Ottman, deputy product director with the Army, said that this summer the Army will be testing ground-based radar and other sense-and-avoid technology at its Dugway proving Ground in Utah.

The bipartisan Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus – formed in 2009 in response to the rapidly expanding drone industry – fully supports the Pentagon’s plan. Co-chair Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) informed the LA Times that he was in favor of moving along the process of integrating drones into civil airspace.  The value of the commercial drone market in the United States is estimated to be at hundreds of millions of dollars.