Unmanned aircraft will challenge air traffic control

While the skies aren't exactly buzzing with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) just yet, experts are warning their explosive growth will require military and public officials to address the issue sooner than they might think.

According to Aviation Week, the four chiefs of service aviation and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) branches told the Army Aviation Association of America's unmanned aircraft symposium last week that the military should crystallize combat air control regarding UAVs, while domestic authorities must work out access and use of UAVs in domestic airspace. "I'm surprised we haven't had a collision yet," said Rear Adm. Joseph Aucoin, director of the Navy's aviation plans and requirements branch.

The opinions come after the deputy defense secretary recently ruled that the Air Force will not become the executive agent for high-flying unmanned aircraft, although the armed services were ordered to work together under a Pentagon-led task force to better align disparate programs and efforts, Aviation Week stated.

The need for better air traffic control of the aircraft will be driven by the phenomenal growth of the UAV. For example, researchers at the Teal Group said in their 2008 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV spending of $3.4 billion annually to $7.3 billion, totaling close to $55 billion in the next ten years.

Add to that UAVs are becoming smaller and less expensive. That has sparked many new uses of the aircraft outside the military. For example, The Washington State Department of Transportation, is looking at a UAV for data collection and aerial surveillance in difficult geographic locations as well as part of its avalanche control program and search and rescue operations. The University of Florida has been toying with a traffic surveillance system using unmanned aircraft as well. And The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department thinks UAV's will be useful for traffic watching but also as a crime fighter. The list goes on and on.

Last month America's National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) completed its first-ever investigation into an unmanned-aircraft accident. Pilot error was blamed for the crash in Arizona in April 2006 of a 10,000lb Predator B, the type of UAV used by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an article in The Economist. It was being operated by Customs and Border Protection when its engine was accidentally turned off by the team piloting it from a control room at an army base. No one was hurt, but the NTSB issued 22 recommendations to address "a wide range of safety issues involving the civilian use of unmanned aircraft."

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in