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Air Force UAVs Cleared for Domestic Duty
Senior Air Force Northern Command and Federal Aviation Administration officials have hammered out a pact that will allow the service to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles over the continental United States during major disasters, according to the AFNORTH commander.
“I'm positive that we have an agreement now,” Maj. Gen. Scott Mayes told Inside the Air Force June 5. “If a national disaster is declared, we will be able to use unmanned aerial systems such as Predator and Global Hawk over a disaster area.”
He told ITAF that Pentagon and FAA officials have placed their respective signatures on documents that outline the preliminary agreement. The domestic airspace in which unmanned aircraft would be allowed to operate would be determined by AFNORTH, but in conjunction with its parent organization U.S. Northern Command and the FAA, Mayes added. Senior government officials must still approve the plan.
“The geographical dimensions of the disaster area would be worked out” at his outfit's air operations center, the AFNORTH chief added.
Aside from securing access to U.S. airspace during times of disasters and conducting air support missions for NORTHCOM, Mayes said the command's third priority is carrying out Air Force humanitarian assistance missions. The two-star noted the use of unmanned aircraft will be vital in that role because the autonomous aircraft can provide real-time images and data to federal, state and local first responders coordinating rescue and relief efforts.
He added that senior AFNORTH officials have already begun exploring UAV usage in U.S. skies during natural disasters in coordinated interagency drills -- most recently during the command's Ardent Sentry 2006 exercise (see related story).
But Mayes said the Air Force command was unable to transition the aircraft into the AFNORTH toolkit in time for the rescue and recovery effort in the destructive wakes of hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The storms, which cut a swath of destruction across the Gulf Coast last year, forced the command's top brass to re-engage with the FAA on forging an agreement on domestic use of military-operated UAVs.
“We had some hurdles with the interagency, the FAA in particular, that we were unable to overcome” as relief efforts were underway last year following the two storms, Mayes recalled. “Since Rita and Katrina, as part of the lessons learned, we have worked very hard with the FAA.”
At press time (June 8), AFNORTH officials had not responded to inquiries seeking further details.
Prior to the new agreement, senior service officials had for some time championed the use of UAVs in civilian airspace to perform critical homeland security and other domestic missions. Officials involved in the interagency debate, however, reached an impasse over the ability of the military's unmanned aircraft to meet FAA flight certification standards. Defense Department and aviation administration officials sought to create a way ahead for unmanned aircraft to fly over the continental U.S. in late 2005, with provisions included in the latest version of the Pentagon's Unmanned Aerial Systems Road Map (ITAF, Aug. 12, p11).
That Pentagon strategy sought to increase performance and reliability rates of the current UAV fleet, with the overall goal of evolving such figures to become on par with those of manned platforms. Aviation agency officials also wanted assurances that military UAVs would be fitted with “see and avoid” capabilities, according to the August document. The “see and avoid” concept is based on the notion that pilots can make split-second decisions using their field of vision to avoid mid-air collisions.
Without that crucial human element, FAA officials were concerned that guidance technologies within unmanned platforms were not advanced enough to mimic such capabilities.
Under the pending Air Force-FAA agreement, however, unmanned platforms could conceivably avoid being subjected to such requirements. Such standards are based on the assumption that UAVs would operate within normal air traffic patterns. But during a natural disaster, such airspace would likely be closed to commercial traffic, reducing the threat of mid-air collisions with civilian planes or commercial airliners.
With the final UAV agreement nearing final approval, Mayes said the role of unmanned aircraft in rescue and relief efforts will only increase over time.
“Here we do imagery and analysis” on natural disaster scenarios, Mayes said. “So we will use unmanned systems for that . . . most likely from now on.”