Documents raise questions about safety of drones in US airspace

Expensive drones
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection unmanned aircraft, or drone.

Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr

Under pressure to open the nation’s skies to drone flights, federal regulators are relying on decades of aviation rules that imagined a human being in the cockpit – not an onslaught of remotely piloted aircraft – prompting questions about whether federal flight rules for drones are strong enough to prevent accidents and midair collisions, recently released documents show.

Many drones and other small aircraft don’t have elaborate onboard detection systems to help them avoid crashes in the air, said Mel Beckman, a California mechanic and pilot who’s been flying for more than 30 years. People who don’t fly planes often are surprised to learn that pilots are required to “see and avoid,” which is exactly what it sounds like – keep a naked 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.”

Congress in February directed regulators to more rapidly establish guidelines for the wider embrace of drones, and a subsequent debate about them leaves the impression for many Americans that unmanned aircraft have rarely operated here. Yet experimental drone flights accompanied by their own set of rules have occurred for years and are described in thousands of pages of FAA experimental flight records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting through the Freedom of Information Act.

Public safety officials are lobbying for the broader use of drones to save money on expensive piloted fleets and to better visualize disasters, uncover drug cultivation and conduct surveillance before carrying out a raid. The documents reveal how much more complicated safety could become in the national airspace once unmanned aircraft leave the largely uninhabited areas where they are tested today. 

The FAA predicted four years ago that a sophisticated collision-avoidance system for drones could cost as much as $2 billion and was still far into the future. Regulators also anticipated then that a framework for broader drone flights in the United States wouldn’t be ready until sometime around 2020, according [PDF] to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Bell Helicopter manufactured an Eagle Eye prototype in 2005 and tested it south of a tiny Texas town, Graford, until the drone crashed the following year, FAA records show. It was developed as an aircraft for the Coast Guard that could take off and land vertically, but records show test flights could be conducted only during daylight hours with favorable weather conditions, a rule that wouldn’t be realistic for commercial airliners. A company official was not available for comment.

Telford Aviation, partnering with defense giant Science Applications International Corp. under a Navy contract, manufactured an unmanned blimp, or airship, in 2007 and tested it deep in the northeastern tip of Maine near the town of Limestone. Telford could not be reached, but documents show that the FAA expected the company’s visual observers to “conduct their duties (no) more than three nautical miles laterally or 3000 feet vertically from the (unmanned aircraft).”

Controversial security company Blackwater USA, which later became Xe Services and then Academi, experimented with its own unmanned blimp at a former naval air station in North Carolina. Blackwater developed the 170-foot-long Polar 400, built in 2007, hoping to meet growing Defense Department demand for better aerial surveillance and intelligence-gathering technologies.

“All flights of this aircraft must be conducted over open water or sparsely populated areas having light air traffic,” one FAA document instructed. An Academi spokesman said Blackwater Airships was dissolved in late 2010 because the new owners wanted to focus on “security assessments, trainings and security services.”

Testing areas tightly controlled

FAA regulations tightly control areas where unmanned aircraft are being tested today, and flights have to be terminated immediately with a message sent to air traffic controllers when a drone drifts outside a specified location.

Without the ability to see and avoid, manufacturers rely on “chase planes” with a human pilot or ground observers who can visually track the drone. Defense contractor Raytheon of Massachusetts told aviation regulators in 2007 that if its Cobra went beyond one nautical mile of the ground observer, a chase plane would step in with a pilot.

And if contact with the drone is lost or its engine fails?

Raytheon wrote in a 2007 letter to the FAA that if the engine quits, a backup battery kicks in, the pilot navigates an immediate landing, “and if video is available, he will use video to avoid obstructions on the ground.” If the digital link is lost, a landing is forced or the aircraft is spiraled to the earth.

“There’s a big disconnect between ground pilots and the aircraft they’re flying,” pilot Beckman said. “The regulations currently don’t accommodate that.” 

Two of Raytheon’s unmanned aircraft were “completely destroyed” in 2008 after one collided with a light pole and the other was forced down following an engine failure, according to FAA experimental flight records. The company declined to answer questions for this story.

Crashes are common. A Global Hawk drone developed by Northrop Grumman careened into a Maryland tributary in June during training in the same week that Northrop planned to unveil a variation of the aircraft at a ceremony in Palmdale, Calif. Two Reaper drones developed by California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems crashed in the Indian Ocean over a recent four-month period, and one of its Predator drones owned by the Department of Homeland Security crashed in 2006 near Nogales, Ariz.

Congressional investigators tallied 200 drone accidents that varied in severity over 4½ years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half were due to “material issues,” such as component failures.

Narrowing airspace

Seemingly wide-open skies aren’t an advantage because pilots move along specific routes that help guarantee they won’t smash into anything on the ground, like a mountaintop.

Airways are tightened further in places like Washington, D.C., where access is highly restricted, and some areas at times have been temporarily set aside for the exclusive use of drones, which creates even more of a challenge for pilots, said Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic services and modernization for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

“By the time you avoid all of those areas and try to thread the needle, you’re limiting aircraft operations into a very narrow airspace, and you’re also compressing traffic into a very narrow corridor,” Williams said. “That reduces the margin of safety for many operators.”

The FAA is primarily responsible for promoting safety, she said, and data is still needed to ensure advanced technology can be as reliable as the human eye.

Sensor and radar devices exist today that could make both manned and unmanned aircraft safer, but wealthy travelers with private aircraft are opposed to federal regulators or anyone else tracking their whereabouts, said Patrick Egan, an unmanned systems consultant based in Sacramento, Calif.

The FAA for years kept such poor records on private and commercial aircraft that the Associated Press discovered 119,000 with missing paperwork in 2010 – one-third of the total registered. Bureaucrats long had an opportunity to collect safety data on drones and the technology behind them, but Washington showed little initiative to do so, Egan said.

“It’s the law enforcement application that people are apprehensive about because of what’s going on overseas,” Egan said, referring to the government’s use of drones abroad for surveillance and targeted killings. “You gotta go out there and find the missing Alzheimer’s patient, the missing child – do these types of missions until people understand what the systems can do. They have the very real potential to help improve our lives.”

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