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The Struggle To Get UAVs Flying

The Pentagon and FAA finally seem to be moving toward resolution of one of the toughest policy issues facing unmanned aerial vehicles: where and when can they fly in civil airspace.

Last week's collision between a helicopter and small plane over New York raises the stakes and reinforces the need for stringent UAV safety protocols, said several experts attending the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference here in Washington. They did not want to be identified. One expert said that last week's crash "reinforces the fear" that an accident might occur between a UAV and a plane. The expert added that it would take only one collision between a UAV and a passenger plane "to set back things completely."

Right now UAVs are largely useless in the United States and Europe because of the continuing impasse between understandably safety-minded civil air authorities and those who want to operate UAVs in civil air space. How important is it for the FAA and friends to come up with a solution to this problem? "Absolutely essential," Gene Fisher, Northrop Grumman's VP strike and surveillance systems, said when I asked him about the problem during a briefing at the AUVSI 2009 conference here in Washington.

Right now, as the Department of Homeland Security knows all too well, UAVs cannot fly in most civil airspace. When a Global Hawk or other assets are deployed to the border they must either operate in restricted airspace or have a manned aircraft fly with them. UAVs are easy to fly in a military zone. Aside from keeping clear of friendly aircraft, few restrictions hem unmanned vehicles in as they gather information or fire weapons.

So, faced with the likely prospect that the Air Force's new UAV center at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota would be faced with the rather embarrassing prospect of not being able to fly UAVs once they arrive, the two senators and one congressman from North Dakota sat down in February with representatives from the Pentagon, FAA and other government agencies and told them to come up with some answers. (In addition to the UAV center, the University of North Dakota is home to the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence, where pilots are trained to fly. They've just started what may be the first four-year degree course in UAVs.

That February meeting led to the creation of something called the Red River Working Group -- one of 11 in existence -- which the Pentagon believes is a test case for the military's efforts to solve this problem. Air Force Lt. Col. Dallas Brooks, who is heading the Air Force's efforts on this, said the working group works with the Joint Staff and the Joint Interagency UAS Working Group formed by the FAA to come up with answers. The interagency group includes the Defense Department, FAA and NASA.

Along with policy answers to the problem of letting UAVs fly in civil airspace there may be technical solutions. The most promising approach involves sense-and-avoid technology. Essentially, UAVs would use a combination of radar, algorithms and software to ensure that if they detect they are on a collision course they would take evasive action. One of the experts at the AUVSI conference said the best approach would be to require manned and unmanned aircraft to fly with sense-and-avoid technology. So far, the focus has been on equipping only UAVs with it.

Northrop's Gene Fraser said that piloted planes, reliant on pilot's eyes and the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) don't really provide much of a safety margin and they should include sense and avoid technology. "If you are going to require sense and avoid on unmanned platforms that same technology should be included on a manned platform," he said.

Whether the Red River efforts will actually lead to a solution appears uncertain at this point. Although Sen. Byron Dorgan and other members of the North Dakota delegation are pushing hard, one well informed source believes they are a useful addition to the chorus calling for a fix, but doubts they will be enough to overcome the FAA's deep-seated concerns about the possibilities of a UAV colliding with a passenger plane.

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