Safety a Concern as Border Drones Catch On

Monday, August 7, 2006
Safety a concern as drones catch on
By Alan Levin
Crashes of drone planes flying over the USA are worrying pilots and lawmakers who fear that a surge in interest by federal and local agencies to use the unmanned aircraft could lead to danger in the skies. Spurred by the success of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the Pentagon says it has seen the number of its drone planes increase from fewer than 100 six years ago to 3,500 in 2006. About 700 of those operate in the USA. Federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, NASA, Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration have expressed interest in using drones for everything from border surveillance to finding lost children.

While most drones are small and fly only above military bases, some large UAVs are allowed under U.S. regulations to enter civilian airspace. President Bush has called for expanding their use to protect the nation’s borders, and a handful of local police and sheriff’s offices are seeking permission to use the planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Manufacturers such as Northrup-Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems say UAVs, some with a wingspan greater than a Boeing 737’s, will be as safe as other aircraft, perhaps safer. No civilian deaths have been reported from UAVs.

The Air Line Pilots Association and other critics say recent accidents underline the need for caution:

  • A Customs and Border Protection Predator B drone, which is as large as some commuter airliners, slammed to the ground within several hundred feet of homes in Arizona on April 25. Its ground operator accidentally shut off its engine, according to a preliminary federal incident report.
  • A prototype of an Eagle Eye tilt-rotor plane being developed for the Coast Guard crashed during tests April 5 in Texas. The UAV, which weighs about 2,000 pounds and can hover like a helicopter, went down after an unidentified radio signal triggered a self-destruct mechanism that killed the engine, according to its builder, Bell Helicopter Textron.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration criticized the Los Angeles County sheriff for conducting a demonstration flight without permission June 16. The 3-pound drone, which carries video cameras, crashed in a media demonstration.

    House lawmakers concerned about crashes of drones involving federal agencies have inserted language in homeland security funding legislation that demands reports on the accidents.

    The airline pilots’ union and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) say UAVs are not safe.

    “We are sharing airspace where we are assured that a certain level of safety is being met, and yet there is no level of safety for these UAVs,” said Heidi Williams, air traffic services director for AOPA.

    The FAA has created a UAV division and is studying how to draw up standards for drones.

    Editor’s Note” In case you weren’t aware there are plans to use drones between California and Mexico.

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