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 arial 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.
Here’s another good reason to keep drones out of our skies: US draws up plans for nuclear drones. They may not only be nuclear powered, but they may also carry nuclear weapons:
… other unmanned combat aerial vehicles are in the works. Nearly a trillion dollars has been invested in the Northrop Grumman x-47b, which is designed to take off from an aircraft carrier, bomb its target, and return to the mother ship all while being flown entirely by computer. Boeing is developing the Phantom Ray ucav for surveillance and ground attack. A dizzying number of other drones are being researched, developed, tested and delivered—including drones that can carry nuclear warheads. This is the future of American warfare.
But the advantages and early success of unmanned aerial vehicles comes at a cost, including a bad case of overconfidence. The U.S. military is overestimating the strength of this new technology while simultaneously underestimating threats to it. This has led military planners and politicians to overreach, turning their present tactical monopoly into a full-blown military strategy for the future.
This overconfidence is leading to mistakes that America’s enemies have exploited and will continue to exploit. America may wield a vast technology edge over the Taliban and other tribal terrorists, but more technically advanced enemies are lurking in the shadows, working to take advantage of weaknesses in America’s new robotic army.
Primitive terrorists with machine guns and grenade launchers may be vulnerable to American drones. But American drones are vulnerable to cyberwarfare. Drone failures and captures have already been made public, underlining the risks Washington is taking by gambling the nation’s future on robots. …