The advent of heavier-than-air flight has been one of the great technological revolutions of all times. It changed many aspects of modern life, most notably transportation, surveillance and warfare. The numbers alone make it clear how much flying has become an integral part of our commercial, military and personal lives. Daily, nearly 100,000 aircraft make use of the skies over the United States. They include around 40,000 commercial flights, 27,000 private planes, 25,000 air taxi flights, 5,000 military aircraft and 2,000 air cargo flights. According to some estimates, the economic value to the United States of all activities associated with aviation amounts to around ten percent of U.S. GDP ($1.4 trillion dollars) and generates some 11 million jobs.
A new revolution is in the offing, one that could be as transformative of aviation as was the development of radar, radio, the jet engine or modern avionics. This is the advent of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). We are generally familiar with the role of the UAV in warfare. Unmanned systems such as the Predator and Global Hawk first saw service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now they and many other vehicles, large and small, are essential to U.S. military operations worldwide. The demand for UAVs to perform an increasing range of missions continues to rise; hundreds are in use daily. Some UAVs are armed, conducting strikes against terrorist targets around the world. In the future, the military is considering using UAVs to move cargo and even personnel, particularly wounded soldiers.
The term UAV is really a misnomer. It is more correct to call these aircraft remotely piloted vehicles. Although there is no one actually aboard the vehicle flying it manually, the UAV is closely controlled by an operator at a distance.
The explosive growth in the military’s use of UAVs overseas has not been matched by a similar increase in their use at home. The potential uses for UAVs at home are almost unlimited. Unfortunately, the agency responsible for formulating the regulations that would govern the flight of UAVs in the homeland, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been excruciatingly slow in moving forward on this important issue. As a result, even the U.S. military and the Department of Homeland Security are severely restricted in their ability to employ UAVs for mission such as border surveillance or airspace security.
The central issue is how to integrate UAVs into an already crowded airspace. This includes defining minimum performance standards for UAVs, establishing requirements for collision avoidance, determining the role and qualifications for UAV operators and figuring out the “rules of the road” when both manned and unmanned vehicles are near one another. This sounds like an overwhelming task. However, it is worthwhile remembering that we have established acceptable rules for the wide range of commercial and private air traffic, including jet and propeller-driven aircraft as well as helicopters. Still, according to the National Transportation Safety Board there were some 3,000 aviation-related accidents in the United States in 2009, not including those involving vehicles flown by federal, state and local governments.
What is desperately needed is the development and validation of “sense and avoid” systems that would allow unmanned systems to operate safely when manned aviation platforms are present. The FAA needs to be much more aggressive in its testing of UAVs and current surveillance and safety systems and in developing rules that allow reasonable use of UAV in the skies over the United States. How many of the deaths and injuries associated with those 3,000 plus aviation accidents in 2009 could have been avoided by the use of UAVs?
The FAA has a program called NextGen which will use advanced satellite-based technologies to allow improved surveillance and management of U.S. airspace. NextGen is primarily focused on managing manned aviation operations. The use of advanced sensor and communications technologies is intended to allow aircraft to operate with reduced separation, thereby enabling more aircraft to be in the air at the same time. The NextGen vision needs to be extended to encompass UAVs as well so that reasonable flight rules and advanced surveillance and response technologies can be used to exploit this revolution in aviation.
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