US Senators want to almost triple drone/national airspace test sites

Push part of FAA reauthorization bill and could move unmanned aircraft closer to national airspace access

In a move that could put unmanned aircraft closer to gaining access to national airspace, a couple of US senators are backing an amendment that would increase the number of test sites for such access from  4 to 10.

Specifically US Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Ron Wyden of Oregon are looking to tack on an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill that would significantly increase the number of test sites in the National Airspace System for unmanned aerial vehicles. 

For more on this issue: Unmanned aircraft pose myriad problems to US airspace, GAO reports

Being New York's senator, Schumer naturally threw his support behind one such airport in particular:  Syracuse's Hancock Field.  According to his website, Schumer said "Hancock Field is ideally positioned to be named a test site because of its attractive air space and concentration of related high-tech firms. The Central New York region has two restricted areas, four seasons, a varied terrain, an over water range, air to ground gunnery capability and large airspace volume- all key ingredients to being chosen as a test site."

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The US Senate is now debating the FAA Reauthorization Bill now, which sets travel policy for the entire country and funds the FAA. The bill is likely to be voted on in the next few weeks. From Schumer's site: "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAV's have become an increasingly important component of US security strategy.  The UAV's, sometimes called drones, are most well known for being used in Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan to target terrorists and keep American troops out of the line of fire from anti-aircraft guns. Additionally, they have been used inside the U.S. to tackle drug smuggling across the Northern Border and aid local police departments."

The idea of routinely allowing unmanned aircraft in the national airspace has been debated for a couple years now.

The Government Accountability Office in the past reported that a number of serious issues need to be addresses before drone access to US airspace should be granted. For example the GAO found:

  • Many unmanned airplanes, particularly smaller models, will likely operate at altitudes below 18,000 feet, sharing airspace with other objects, such as gliders. Sensing and avoiding these other objects represents a particular challenge for unmanned aircraft, since the other objects normally do not transmit an electronic signal to identify themselves and FAA cannot mandate that all aircraft or objects possess this capability so that the aircraft can operate safely. Many small unmanned do not have equipment to detect such signals and, in some cases, are too small to carry such equipment
  • The effort to develop the Traffic Alert and Collision and Avoidance System (TCAS), used widely in manned aircraft to help prevent collisions, demonstrates the challenge of developing a detect, sense, and avoid capability for unmanned airplanes. Although FAA, airlines, and several private-sector companies developed TCAS over a 13-year period, at a cost of more than $500 million, FAA officials point out that the designers did not intend for TCAS to act as the sole means of avoiding collisions and that the on board pilot still has the responsibility for seeing and avoiding other aircraft. FAA officials also point out that TCAS computes collision avoidance solutions based on characteristics of manned aircraft, and does not incorporate unmanned aircraft's slower turn and climb rates in developing conflict solutions. Consequently, FAA officials believe that developing the detect, sense, and avoid technology that unmanned aircraft would need to operate routinely in the national airspace system poses an even greater challenge than TCAS did. FAA officials believe that an acceptable detect, sense, and avoid system for airplanes could cost up to $2 billion to complete and is still many years away.

For its part the FAA has a number of ongoing projects that are exploring the impact of drones on national airspace.  Last year for example,  the FAA  set a two-year research and development agreement with Insitu - an independent subsidiary of Boeing and the New Jersey Air National Guard that will help  FAA scientists to study and better understand unmanned aircraft design, construction and features.  Researchers will also look at the differences in how an air traffic controller would manage an unmanned aircraft vs. a manned aircraft.

Also last year the FAA it opened a laboratory where scientists will use computer simulation technology explore how future systems such as unmanned aircraft and new navigation concepts will perform in the agency's future airspace structure.  As part of the research, GE is working with unmanned aircraft builder, AAI to demonstrate flights with its Shadow tactical unmanned aircraft. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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