Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Won't Go Away

At issue is whether unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will ever provide "an equivalent level of safety" to manned aircraft operating in the NAS.


will acquire at least six Predator B UAS to patrol both the northern and

southern borders of the U.S.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S.

Forest Service have been early proponents of regular UAS operations in the NAS,

having successfully demonstrated how UAS can counter major wildfires fueled by

extreme heat and drought.

This past summer, they conducted flights of a Predator B remotely piloted

vehicle equipped with advanced imaging and communications equipment to capture

real-time thermal infrared images of western states wildfires, which were passed

along to firefighters on the ground.

The Ikhana, a Predator B modified for civil science and research

missions, flew again in October, assisting firefighters battling the Southern

California wildfires.

"In the not-too-distant future, we'll look back at unmanned aircraft

demonstrations and realize that these flights paved the way for civilian use of

unmanned aircraft that benefit all of us, said NASA's Brent Cobleigh.

The FAA has already cleared Predators for domestic disaster relief

operations, giving the U.S. Air Force permission in 2006 to conduct humanitarian

missions in civil airspace as required and within specific flight restrictions.

The USAF used a Global Hawk UAS to collect high-altitude imagery of the Southern

California wildfires, representing the first domestic use of the military

surveillance platform.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is sending

small drones with advanced weather-watching equipment deep into hurricanes.

At least three local police departments have purchased or have budgeted

money to buy small drones to help them respond to emergencies and for traffic

and crowd control. But the FAA has stepped in, keeping the police UAS grounded

pending establishment of operating regulations for unfettered flights.

Chief Donald Shinnamon, director of public safety for the city of Holly

Hill, Florida, and an expert on the use of manned rotorcraft and UAS for law

enforcement, says opportunities exist for use of drones at the local government

level. "There is a huge market for fire departments and emergency management

departments to employ this technology because UAS are affordable and have a

lower noise signature," he believes.

"We all stand to benefit from local departments employing small UAS," he

said, but he charges that "regulation is lagging behind the technology and that

the FAA declines to engage in a meaningful dialogue with non-Department of

Defense UAS operators."

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued a technical bulletin

regarding law enforcement use of unmanned aircraft systems.

It said "UAS is a rapidly emerging technology that has exceptional appeal

to law enforcement" but DOJ warned that the operation of a UAS by a public

agency, whether it is federal, state or local law enforcement, is enforced by

FAA regulations.

The DOJ said prior to purchasing or leasing a UAS, potential law

enforcement users should consider the following:

* For a public aircraft operation, the FAA holds the position that a

Certificate of Authorization (COA) is required to operate UAS in the National

Airspace;

* The FAA has stated publicly that COAs would not be issued for use of a

UAS over populated areas, such as may be defined by the yellow areas on aviation

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