Watchdogs say tons of issues remain before unmanned aircraft can fly free in US

GAO report cites sense and avoid, privacy and technology concerns need to be resolved

While research and spending on unmanned aircraft technology, many questions around safety and privacy need to be answered by government and the industry before drones will routinely fly in public airspace.

Specifically, the Government Accountability Office has issued a report saying worldwide spending on unmanned aircraft could hit $89.1 billion in over the next decade but that worries over national security, privacy, and the interference in Global Positioning-System (GPS) signals have not been resolved and may influence acceptance of routine access for unmanned aircraft in the national airspace system.

Background: What the drone invasion looks like

The GAO said it issues a report will similar findings in 2008 and those issues remain largely unaddressed.  There are seven core concerns, from the most recent GAO report:

  • 1. The inability for unmanned aircraft to detect, sense, and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects in a manner similar to "see and avoid" by a pilot in a manned aircraft. To date, no suitable technology has been deployed that would provide unmanned systems with the capability to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects and to comply completely with FAA regulatory requirements of the national airspace system. However, research and development efforts by FAA, DOD, NASA, and MITRE, among others, suggests that potential solutions to the sense and avoid obstacle may be available in the near term. With no pilot to scan the sky, most UAS do not have an on-board capability to directly "see" other aircraft. Consequently, unmanned aircraft must possess the capability to sense and avoid an object using on-board equipment, or within the line-of-sight of a human on the ground or in a chase aircraft, or by other means, such as ground-based sense and avoid. Since 2008, FAA and other federal agencies have managed several research activities to support meeting the sense and avoid requirements. DOD officials said the Department of the Army is working on a ground-based system that will detect other airborne objects and allow the pilot to direct the UAS to maneuver to a safe location. The Army has successfully tested one system, but it may not be useable on all types of drones.
  • 2. Vulnerabilities in the command and control of UAS operations: Ensuring uninterrupted command and control for both small and large drones remains a key obstacle for safe and routine integration into the national airspace system. Since drones fly based on pre-programmed flight paths and by commands from a pilot-operated ground control station, the ability to maintain the integrity of command and control signals are critically important to ensure that the UAS operates as expected and as intended. FAA and MITRE have been researching solutions to lost link, but the standardization of lost link procedures, for both small and large UAS, has not been finalized. In a "lost link" scenario, the command and control link between the UAS and the ground control station is broken because of either environmental or technological issues, which could lead to loss of control of the UAS. To address this type of situation, drones generally have pre-programmed maneuvers that may direct the aircraft to first hover or circle in the airspace for a certain period of time to reestablish its radio link. If the link is not reestablished, then the UAS will return to "home" or the location from which it was launched, or execute an unintentional flight termination at its current location. It is important that air traffic controllers know where and how all aircraft are operating so they can ensure the safety of the aircraft.
  • 3. Progress has been made in obtaining additional dedicated radio-frequency spectrum for unmanned operations, but additional dedicated spectrum, including satellite spectrum, is still needed to ensure secure and continuous communications for both small and large operations. The unmanned industry is working to develop and validate hardware and standards for communications operating in allocated spectrum. Specifically, according to NASA, it is developing, in conjunction with Rockwell Collins, a radio for control and a non-payload communications data link that would provide secure communications. In addition, FAA's UAS Research Management Plan identified 13 activities designed to mitigate command, control, and communication obstacles. One effort focused on characterizing the capacity and performance impact of UAS operations on air-traffic-control communications systems. In addition, a demonstration led by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2010 simulated a national airspace communications system to demonstrate the process and ability of a UAS pilot to establish alternate voice communications with air traffic control if the primary radio communications link were lost. NASA is also performing additional command and control research. As part of its 5-year UAS Integration in the National Airspace System Project, NASA is working to develop and verify a communications system prototype to support the allocation of spectrum for safe UAS operations.
  • 4. FAA and NASA are taking steps to ensure the reliability of both small and large UAS by developing a certification process specific to UAS. Currently, FAA has a process and regulations in place for certifying any new aircraft type and allowing it access to the national airspace system. Drone stakeholders the GAO interviewed stated that this process is costly and manpower intensive, and does not assure certification. One manufacturer that tried certifying a UAS through this process noted that it took one year and cost $1 million to permit a single airframe to have access to the national airspace system. According to the FAA, another manufacturer recently started this process.
  • 5. Standards-making bodies are working to develop safety, reliability, and performance standards for drones. The complexities of the issues to be addressed and the lack of operational and safety data have hindered the standards development process. Minimum aviation system performance standards (MASPS) and minimum operational performance standards (MOPS) are needed in the areas of: operational and navigational performance; command and control communications; and sense and avoid capabilities. As of June 2012, the FAA was still defining the data fields it needed and how the data will be used to support the development of performance or certification standards and the regulatory process for drones. FAA officials have since communicated their data requirements to DOD and also provided us with a list of general data requirements. Furthermore, FAA officials also noted that the agency currently has a contract with MITRE to address these data challenges in fiscal year 2013.
  • 6. According to FAA, its draft Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that would define and govern how small UAS would potentially operate in the national airspace system will be issued at the end of 2012. FAA regulations govern the routine operation of most aircraft in the national airspace system. However, these regulations do not contain provisions that explicitly address issues relating to drones. As the GAO highlighted in its 2008 report, existing regulations may need to be modified to address the unique characteristics of UAS to prevent "undue harm to manned aircraft." Today, UAS continue to operate as exceptions to the regulatory framework rather than being governed by it. Without specific and permanent regulations for safe operation of UAS, federal stakeholders, including DOD, continue to face challenges and limitations on their UAS operations. The lack of final regulations could hinder the acceleration of safe and routine integration of UAS into the national airspace system.
  • 7. As the FAA and others continue to address the challenges to UAS integration, they must do so with the expected changes to the operations of the national airspace system as a result of the FAA's NextGen air traffic system in mind. As unmanned operations are expected to proliferate, it is important that they are able to safely operate in the NextGen environment.

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