Crowded airspace: 'Dysfunctional' interagency coordination hampers domestic deployment of drones.
And if Customs and Border Protection has its way, unmanned surveillance craft may be flying over the northern border with Canada.
The Federal Aviation Administration--which must approve unmanned aircraft flights--is dismayed at the prospect of robots zipping around in national airspace that is populated by parachutists, gliders, blimps, airliners and other flying objects. It wants all unmanned aircraft to have sensors that enable them to have the same see-and-avoid capabilities as manned aircraft.
So far, the technology isn't there, and it may not be there until after 2010, according to Howard Swancy; a senior FAA advisor. "The FAA sees maybe a five- to seven-year effort, but the security forces--from their interaction with the UAV [unmanned air vehicle] manufacturers--think it's more like two to three years."
The latest FAA guidance, contained in a September 2005 memo, expresses the agency's concerns about the dangers of UAVs operating amid aircraft lacking transponders, as well as objects that may not appear on radar, such as parachutists and gliders. "An acceptable solution to the 'see and avoid' problem for unmanned aircraft is many years away," regulators concluded.
Attempts to hammer out a common policy between the FAA on one side, and Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department on the other, haven't been harmonious. "I don't want to say disagreement," Swancy said. "But between the organizations, there is not a common understanding. The manufacturers, in order to increase the business case and salability of these systems, have added to this dysfunctional conversation."
Nonetheless, UAVs are certain to play a much greater role in homeland security. Customs and Border Protection began flying a Predator along the southern border with Mexico last September, while the Coast Guard is testing its Eagle Eye tilt-rotor craft for maritime and port surveillance.
Ricky High, interim director for UAV systems at CBP, says the Predator has been a useful "force multiplier" for Border Patrol agents. The agency currently is using one Predator "B" model, which will be joined by a second in the summer.
The first Predator B is flying four nights a week, which may expand to seven once the second vehicle is delivered. Operating at an altitude of 12,000 to 14,000 feet, the Predator covers a patrol area about 100 miles long and stretching about 15 miles north of the border. They are typically assigned to specific sectors of the border.
High said the time to file a flight plan is now down to one hour before takeoff. When the Predator is aloft, its patrol area is restricted airspace, which bars civilian aircraft and parachutists. The current FAA certificate of authorization was a compromise, he explained. CBP wanted a larger swath than 100-by-15 miles, and a higher altitude for greater line of sight, but the FAA had concerns.
"We think we're down to the minimum space we need to operate in," High added.
In its next request for a certificate of authorization, CBP will ask for a 350- to 400-mile wide stretch and a higher altitude. CBP is also looking at expanding its patrolling to other regions, such as the northern border with Canada, as part of the secure border initiative.
High credits the Predator, which is equipped with an electro-optic infrared sensor and synthetic aperture radar, with at least one drug bust. "One particular night, we saw a vehicle cross the border. There were no agents on the ground in the vicinity of it, but the UAV saw it coming across and vectored some ground units on it. It was loaded with marijuana."
The Predator is maintained and largely flown by employees of the manufacturer, General Atomics. "But once the airplane is launched and goes into its patrol mode, we have Border Patrol agents that have been trained on the sensor," High said. "They take the sensor operator's position, and coordinate with ground and air units."
Drones offer several advantages over manned fixed-wing aircraft, and Astar and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, explained High. One difference is the faster speed of a UAV. Another is altitude. Helicopters "are flying around at 500 feet or lower. Obviously, the range of my sensor is not going to be very far. I'm going to see only what the horizon lets me see. You have a UAV several thousand feet above the ground, and it can run a sensor over a larger area."
The Predator's longer endurance is also an asset. A helicopter might have four hours of fuel, of which two might be spent in transit to its patrol area, said High, who is a former helicopter instructor. When a UH-60 returns to base, there's down time while the helicopter is refueled and the relief crew takes over. But a Predator can stay in the air for 12 to 20 hours, and there is no need to return home to change crews. "When the shift change comes, the pilot that's flying it gets out the seat and gives a briefing to whoever will be sitting in it."
Capt. Matt Sisson, aviation manager for the Coast Guard's deepwater project, also sees the UAV as a valuable asset. The Eagle Eye, which is scheduled to make its first flight in 2007, will extend the reach of Coast Guard cutters. Missions include surveillance, port security and pollution monitoring. "It's an extension of the ship's eyes. The idea is that you scoot out ahead a hundred miles or so ahead of the cutter, identify targets of interest, and cut down the amount of hours you have to throw a manned asset at it."
Equipped with an electro-optical infrared sensor and a multi-mode radar, the Eagle Eye cruises at 185 knots, which is faster than Coast Guard helicopters. "In a conventional helicopter that cruises around 100 or 110 knots, that target may well be gone by the time it gets down south, particularly when we're going after 'go fasts'" high-speed boats used by drug smugglers, said Sisson, who is a Coast Guard helicopter pilot.
The Coast Guard chose a tilt-rotor design because it was the smallest UAV that could both be launched off a cutter and carry an EO/IR sensor and multimode radar, according to Sisson. But while the Predator is a proven design, the Eagle Eye bears some resemblance--at least superficially--to the trouble-plagued, tilt-rotor Bell V-22 Osprey.
"The common misconception is that it is related to the Osprey because they look alike and have the same manufacturer," said Sisson, who cited several differences. While the twin-engine Osprey has an engine in each nacelle, the Eagle has a single centerline-mounted engine. The Osprey has also had problems with its hydraulics, while the Eagle Eye is electrically operated. "What appeals to me is that it's a simple design. It's an engine and some rotors."
Sisson believes the UAVs will eventually fly in national airspace. He pointed to a Coast Guard test of a Predator B in 2004, which received FAA authorization to survey Alaska wild fires in less than three hours. But three hours may not be enough. UAVs will require near-instant authorization if they are to participate in homeland defense. "Obviously, if you want to have response capability, you need to be able to integrate into national airspace," said Sisson, who acknowledged that UAVs are not at a quick-response stage. But he noted that the drones actually have better communications with ground controllers than many manned aircraft. The Eagle Eye also has automatic "lost link" recovery that returns the craft to base if communications are interrupted.
"If we're going to do offshore operations for homeland security, we're going to need areas of ingress and egress to the shore," Sisson said. "I think that a UAV that is properly lit, is talking and squawking, in an area where there is a corridor where they regularly pass in and out of, will be very safe."
"I don't believe it's a technological challenge. The technology is there. It's a matter of successfully inculcating the general aviation world with UAV operations."
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|Title Annotation:||UNMANNED AVIATION|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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