Pressure builds for civilian drone flights at home
JOAN LOWY | Associated Press – Feb 26th
In this Jan. 8, 2009, photo provided by the Mesa
County, Colo., Sheriff's Department, …
This Sept. 2011 photo provided by Vanguard Defense
Industries, shows a ShadowHawk …
This undated photo provided by the Mesa County,
Colo., Sheriff's Department, Deputy …
WASHINGTON (AP) — Heads up: Drones are going
mainstream. Civilian cousins of the unmanned
military aircraft that have tracked and killed
terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand
by police departments, border patrols, power
companies, news organizations and others wanting a
bird's-eye view that's too impractical or dangerous
for conventional planes or helicopters to get.
Along with the enthusiasm, there are qualms.
Drones overhead could invade people's privacy. The
government worries they could collide with passenger
planes or come crashing down to the ground, concerns
that have slowed more widespread adoption of the
Despite that, pressure is building to give drones
the same access as manned aircraft to the sky at
"It's going to be the next big revolution in
aviation. It's coming," says Dan Elwell, the
Aerospace Industries Association's vice president
for civil aviation.
Some impetus comes from the military, which will
bring home drones from Afghanistan and wants room to
test and use them. In December, Congress gave the
Federal Aviation Administration six months to pick
half a dozen sites around the country where the
military and others can fly unmanned aircraft in the
vicinity of regular air traffic, with the aim of
demonstrating they're safe.
The Defense Department says the demand for drones
and their expanding missions requires routine and
unfettered access to domestic airspace, including
around airports and cities. In a report last
October, the Pentagon called for flights first by
small drones both solo and in groups, day and night,
expanding over several years. Flights by large and
medium-sized drones would follow in the latter half
of this decade.
Other government agencies want to fly drones, too,
but they've been hobbled by an FAA ban unless they
first receive case-by-case permission. Fewer than
300 waivers were in use at the end of 2011, and they
often include restrictions that severely limit the
usefulness of the flights. Businesses that want to
put drones to work are out of luck; waivers are only
for government agencies.
But that's changing.
Congress has told the FAA that the agency must allow
civilian and military drones to fly in civilian
airspace by September 2015. This spring, the FAA is
set to take a first step by proposing rules that
would allow limited commercial use of small drones
for the first time.
Until recently, agency officials were saying there
were too many unresolved safety issues to give
drones greater access. Even now FAA officials are
cautious about describing their plans and they avoid
discussion of deadlines.
"The thing we care about is doing that in an orderly
and safe way and finding the appropriate ... balance
of all the users in the system," Michael Huerta,
FAA's acting administrator, told a recent industry
luncheon in Washington. "Let's develop these six
sites — and we will be doing that — where we can
develop further data, further testing and more
history on how these things actually operate."
Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying
Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a
hummingbird-like drone that weighs less than an AA
battery and can perch on a window ledge to record
sound and video. Lockheed Martin has developed a
fake maple leaf seed, or "whirly bird," equipped
with imaging sensors, that weighs less than an
Potential civilian users are as varied as the drones
Power companies want them to monitor transmission
lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to
detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to
Journalists are exploring drones' newsgathering
potential. The FAA is investigating whether The
Daily, a digital publication of Rupert Murdoch's
News Corp., used drones without permission to
capture aerial footage of floodwaters in North
Dakota and Mississippi last year. At the University
of Nebraska, journalism professor Matt Waite has
started a lab for students to experiment with using
a small, remote-controlled helicopter.
"Can you cover news with a drone? I think the answer
is yes," Waite said.
The aerospace industry forecasts a worldwide
deployment of almost 30,000 drones by 2018, with the
United States accounting for half of them.
"The potential ... civil market for these systems
could dwarf the military market in the coming years
if we can get access to the airspace," said Ben
Gielow, government relations manager for the
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems
International, an industry trade group.
The hungriest market is the nation's 19,000 law
Customs and Border Patrol has nine Predator drones
mostly in use on the U.S.-Mexico border, and plans
to expand to 24 by 2016. Officials say the unmanned
aircraft have helped in the seizure of more than 20
tons of illegal drugs and the arrest of 7,500 people
since border patrols began six years ago.
Several police departments are experimenting with
smaller drones to photograph crime scenes, aid
searches and scan the ground ahead of SWAT teams.
The Justice Department has four drones it loans to
"We look at this as a low-cost alternative to buying
a helicopter or fixed-wing plane," said Michael
O'Shea, the department's aviation technology program
manager. A small drone can cost less than $50,000,
about the price of a patrol car with standard police
Like other agencies, police departments must get FAA
waivers and follow much the same rules as model
airplane hobbyists: Drones must weigh less than 55
pounds, stay below an altitude of 400 feet, keep
away from airports and always stay within sight of
the operator. The restrictions are meant to prevent
collisions with manned aircraft.
Even a small drone can be "a huge threat" to a
larger plane, said Dale Wright, head of the National
Air Traffic Controllers Association's safety and
technology department. "If an airliner sucks it up
in an engine, it's probably going to take the engine
out," he said. "If it hits a small plane, it could
bring it down."
Controllers want drone operators to be required to
have instrument-rated pilot licenses — a step above
a basic private pilot license. "We don't want the
Microsoft pilot who has never really flown an
airplane and doesn't know the rules of how to fly,"
Military drones designed for battlefields haven't
had to meet the kind of rigorous safety standards
required of commercial aircraft.
"If you are going to design these things to operate
in the (civilian) airspace you need to start upping
the ante," said Tom Haueter, director of the
National Transportation Safety Board's aviation
safety office. "It's one thing to operate down low.
It's another thing to operate where other airplanes
are, especially over populated areas."
Even with FAA restrictions, drones are proving
useful in the field.
Deputies with the Mesa County Sheriff's Office in
Colorado can launch a 2-pound Draganflyer X6
helicopter from the back of a patrol car. The
drone's bird's-eye view cut the manpower needed for
a search of a creek bed for a missing person from 10
people to two, said Ben Miller, who runs the drone
program. The craft also enabled deputies to alert
fire officials to a potential roof collapse in time
for the evacuation of firefighters from the
building, he said.
The drone could do more if it were not for the FAA's
line-of-sight restriction, Miller said. "I don't
think (the restriction) provides any extra safety,"
The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, north of
Houston, used a Department of Homeland Security
grant to buy a $300,000, 50-pound ShadowHawk
helicopter drone for its SWAT team. The drone has a
high-powered video camera and an infrared camera
that can spot a person's thermal image in the dark.
"Public-safety agencies are beginning to see this as
an invaluable tool for them, just as the car was an
improvement over the horse and the single-shot
pistol was improved upon by the six-shooter," said
Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel, who runs the Montgomery
The ShadowHawk can be equipped with a 40 mm grenade
launcher and a 12-guage shotgun, according to its
maker, Vanguard Defense Industries of Conroe, Texas.
The company doesn't sell the armed version in the
United States, although "we have had interest from
law-enforcement entities for deployment of nonlethal
munitions from the aircraft," Vanguard CEO Michael
The possibility of armed police drones someday
patrolling the sky disturbs Terri Burke, executive
director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil
"The Constitution is taking a back seat so that boys
can play with their toys," Burke said. "It's kind of
scary that they can use a laptop computer to zap
people from the air."
recent ACLU report said allowing drones greater
access takes the country "a large step closer to a
surveillance society in which our every move is
monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on
civil liberties threats involving new technologies,
sued the FAA recently, seeking disclosure of which
agencies have been given permission to use drones.
FAA officials declined to answer questions from The
Associated Press about the lawsuit.
Industry officials said privacy concerns are
"Today anybody— the paparazzi, anybody — can hire a
helicopter or a (small plane) to circle around
something that they're interested in and shoot away
with high-powered cameras all they want," said
Elwell, the aerospace industry spokesman. "I don't
understand all the comments about the Big Brother
AP Television producer Thomas Ritchie contributed to
Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems
Aerospace Industries Association: http://www.aia-aerospace.org/
ACLU report: http://tinyurl.com/77n9h7m Electronic
Frontier Foundation lawsuit: http://tinyurl.com/7feyfv9