Software glitches, high costs, and safety concerns have limited the widespread domestic use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
In the 1983 Chevy Chase movie Deal of the Century, a satire of the defense industry, a remote-controlled, armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) runs amok at an arms show and destroys the multimillion-dollar wares on display.
That cautionary if comedic tale comes to mind after an August incident in which the military lost communication with a Navy Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV undergoing tests at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. Beyond the control of its handlers, the drone—apparently unarmed—flew on for roughly 30 minutes, covering 23 miles and entering restricted airspace around Washington, D.C., before controllers reestablished contact and guided it back home.
The Fire Scout employs software that is supposed to automatically fly the craft back to its point of departure in the event of a communications failure. That software did not work, and several weeks later the Navy acknowledged that the Department of Defense had considered scrambling manned fighter jets to shoot down the UAV.
The incident occurred amid efforts led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and some members of Congress to open up more domestic airspace to UAVs for homeland security missions. “Clearly that incident is a setback,” says Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for aviation consultancy Teal Group Corporation in Fairfax, Virginia.
UAVs like General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator have more than proven their worth in U.S. military and intelligence operations abroad. They have been used to spot threats for troops in harm’s way, and armed with guided missiles, they have helped to thin the ranks of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Use of UAVs stateside has been restricted by the inherent, elevated risk posed by the absence of a pilot and the lack of backup control systems but some projects have been undertaken. For example, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) received permission to use UAVs as eyes in the sky along the northern and southern U.S. borders beginning in 2004. By the end of 2010, CBP’s fleet of UAVs was slated to total seven Predators or variants: three out of Sierra Vista, Arizona; two from Grand Forks, North Dakota; one out of Cocoa Beach, Florida; and the seventh based in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The primary benefit of drones is endurance. The Predator can “dwell” and observe a target or await a mission for up to 30 hours, compared to about three hours for a typical helicopter, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
Benefits in cost of operation are less clear, however. Bigger drones can range in cost from roughly $350,000 for the Army and Marine Corps’ AAI Corporation RQ-7 Shadow to roughly $4.5 million for the Predator. While CBP’s H-60 Black Hawk helicopters and P-3 aircraft cost $8.6 million and $36 million, respectively, a Predator takes a support crew of 20 to operate, CRS found, compared to roughly four aircrew and several more ground support personnel for a helicopter.
All of CBP’s drones fly over either water or sparsely populated areas. Since 2004, they have experienced only two major problems: one was when a drone crashed in Arizona in 2007 after its remote pilot inadvertently shut off the aircraft’s fuel supply, and the other was when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and CBP grounded the latter’s UAVs for six days in 2010 after temporary loss of communications with a drone over Texas, according to the CRS.
The annual procurement budget for the military’s UAV force is expected to drop by a third from 2009 to 2019, according to an analysis by the Government Electronics Industry Association reported by Military & Aerospace Electronics. Lawmakers representing districts where UAV technology generates jobs want to see procurement levels hold or rise, rather than decline. For example, the state of North Dakota has adopted UAV technology as an economic development engine, with support from the state’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
The University of North Dakota (UND) became the first college in the country to offer a degree program in unmanned aerial systems, and this year UND signed an agreement with defense contractor L-3 Communications to develop training and simulation systems.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security recently held a field hearing in North Dakota on FAA efforts to safely broaden the airspace available to unmanned military aircraft. At the hearing, David Ahern of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics testified that the Pentagon is working with other agencies to establish a regulatory framework for expanded UAV airspace access.
Also testifying was Hank Krakowski, COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. He indicated that his agency was not yet convinced that the technology could be used safely in the national airspace system (NAS) over densely populated areas.
“While UAVs offer a promising new technology, the limited safety and operational data available to date does not yet support expedited or full integration into the NAS,” Krakowski testified. He added, “Because current available data is insufficient to allow unfettered integration of [UAVs] into the NAS—where the public travels every day—the FAA must continue to move forward deliberately and cautiously, in accordance with our safety mandate.”