As a society we’re still acclimating to traffic cams snapping images of our license plates if we run a red light at 3 a.m., or ATM cams catching us picking our noses while we’re waiting for our cash. But at least, so far, surveillance cameras have been ground-based and mostly perched at predictable vantage points. On-demand airborne video surveillance is something else again.
Drone Makers Unite
For its part, the AUVSI has addressed the issues of safety and privacy on behalf of its industry. Toscano said, “AUVSI has met with nearly a dozen privacy advocates and civil liberties organizations, as well as other interested parties, to understand their concerns, encourage them to work together and let them know that, like them, AUVSI supports Americans’ rights to privacy, especially the protections afforded under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Meanwhile, the industry’s recently released code of conduct clearly articulates a commitment to respecting individuals’ privacy. As the integration progresses, the industry will continue to engage in constructive, thoughtful and civil dialogue on the national, state and local levels with all parties to address any privacy concerns.”
On the issue of safe, prudent operation of drones in general-use airspace, Toscano said the industry is making every effort to coordinate with FAA certification efforts that would minimize risk to an “acceptable” level. That includes vetting the airworthiness of the aircraft (and, even more important, their radio control systems); operator training and certification; and taking a cautious approach to procedures. He said risk of collision depends greatly on the situation, citing the example of a police department launching a small drone to monitor a hostage situation (flying no higher than 400 feet in line of sight with its operator). In contrast, a high-flying surveillance drone would have to penetrate at least a “band” of airspace where manned aircraft fly. In that case, he said, there would be detailed notams issued through Flight Service, and ATC would monitor the drone flight just as it does a manned aircraft, except the voice radio link would be with the operator on the ground.
Toscano added that the approval process involves a detailed review of the traffic history in any airspace where drones might operate.
“As an example,” he said, “let’s say a government agency wanted to patrol a 100-square-mile area of the Arctic to observe polar bears. The FAA would look back at the past several months and see that only one manned aircraft had flown into that airspace. The risk of a conflict would be extremely low.”
Acknowledging that the consequences of any conflict would be dire, regardless of how low the risk, Toscano added that there would be ample warning issued to pilots that the patrol flights were taking place. Even in the hypothetical case of a floatplane pilot without a transponder who did not get the notam and decided to visit a fishing spot he hadn’t flown to for years, all would not be left to chance. Ground-based elements of the “sense and avoid” technology (apparently a play on the familiar words see and avoid) could be placed to help ensure that a drone would avoid colliding with a manned aircraft.
Toscano cited a recent two-week Army evaluation of its Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) system at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Using sophisticated, military-grade 3-D radar and software algorithms, GBSAA is designed to detect other aircraft — even a non-transponder-equipped wooden homebuilt — flying near the drones and to steer the unmanned aircraft safely away. Toscano said the tests were successful.
“We can’t reduce the risk to zero — no one can — but our goal is to bring the risk level down to an acceptable level when compared with the benefit that operating these vehicles can bring,” he said.
He sees the implementation of ADS-B technology as an avenue to more fully integrate drones into shared airspace in the future. Although a particular mission might require restricting airspace in the pre-ADS-B world, it is hoped that after ADS-B is fully implemented, drones might be able to operate safely in closer quarters with manned aircraft. In other words, the collision protection provided by ADS-B for manned aircraft would extend to include unmanned aircraft as well, at least to a degree.
FAA on Board
On Aug. 7, acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta addressed the AUVSI’s convention in Las Vegas, assuring the industry that the agency is preparing to “realign” itself to accommodate drones.
“We need to change the way we do business,” he said. With the civil drone industry expected to become a multi-billion-dollar concern, Huerta told its leaders, “we are going to allow new ideas to soar to their potential. Our goal is to safely and efficiently integrate unmanned systems into our airspace. Building new technology is one thing, but building human consensus on a path forward for our aviation systems is an equally important task and unbelievably complicated. There’s a lot of work that has to be done, but I am very optimistic that we’ll get there.”
So where is the critical mass coming from that is driving the FAA to embrace unmanned aircraft? It has to start with the stunning success of drones in combat, and the industry that has grown up around that advancing technology. We’re all familiar with how unmanned surveillance and attack aircraft have impacted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the role of drones has expanded in combat, the level of sophistication in their guidance systems and surveillance capabilities has ramped up. With those advances in technology, the manufacturers have expanded their market focus to the civilian sector.