Recently released FAA documents have raised yet more questions surrounding the opening up of US skies to unmanned surveillance drones.
Thousands of pages of FAA experimental drone flight records that were obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) detail just how complicated it would be to operate thousands of unmanned arial vehicles safely without spending billions of dollars.
The documents, received by CIR through the Freedom of Information Act, discuss at length the fact that drones do not have sophisticated collision-avoidance systems and pose more of a threat to other aircraft because their pilots are on the ground with limited visual contact.
Experienced California mechanic and pilot Mel Beckman, tells CIR that drone aircraft are problematic because pilots are required to “see and avoid,” – in other words, literally keep an eye out for other aircraft.
“There’s no way for a drone pilot to do that,” Beckman said. “He’s on the ground, and he’s looking through a small aperture. Yes, the camera can swivel a little bit, but it’s nothing like the panoramic view the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) envisioned when they expected pilots to maintain their own visual surveillance.”
“There’s a big disconnect between ground pilots and the aircraft they’re flying,” pilot Beckman said. “The regulations currently don’t accommodate that.”
Thousands of tiny unmanned aircraft or drones flying into civilian airspace over the United States can pose a security threat as they may be difficult to monitor in the long run and some craft may fall into enemy hands, security analysts say.
Although debate over the use of surveillance drones, approved by Congress this week, centers on civil liberties and individuals’ rights, a much greater risk of hostile drones entering U.S. airspace undetected isn’t being considered, analysts said.
The Federation Aviation Administration said up to 30,000 drones could be in airspace shared with airliners carrying passengers.
Current lobbying for the drones insists there will be enough qualified experts to operate the drones safely and not endanger airborne human traffic but there are many questions unanswered about how the drone operators would be regulated.
More important, at a time when government defense cutbacks are the norm, little consideration is being given to potentially unfathomable costs of maintaining a vast fleet of drones, their monitors and operators and the whole regulatory framework required to run the system efficiently and safely.
There is risk, too, that terrorists will attempt to penetrate the drone network with unpredictable consequences for the safety of the set-up as well as citizens, analysts said.
Once the bill has been signed by U.S. President Barack Obama, the FAA Reauthorization Act will allow the FAA to give drone traffic the go-ahead and develop regulations for testing and licensing by 2015.
The expectations are that the law eventually will streamline processes for multilevel licensing of drone flights by federal, state and local police and other government agencies.
The legislation follows vigorous campaigning by defense and security industries that see drones as a multibillion-dollar growth area.
The defense and security industries have already made up for declining revenues in direct defense acquisitions by developing new business to counter cyberthreats, border body scanners and giant merchandise scanners and a range of software to counter Internet fraud, identity fraud called phishing and hacking of sensitive corporate and government data.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the legislation could severely undermine Americans’ privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation echoed those privacy concerns.