Drones in the U.S. National Airspace System*

By Major Stephen Maddox* & Captain David Stuckenberg**
Tuesday, February 24th, 2015 @ 9:13PM

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Left: Three pilots have reported unmanned drones flying too close to their jetliners as they approached Kennedy Airport this week, NBC 4 New York has learned. Brynn Gingras reports (Thursday, Nov 20, 2014)

Department of Defense disclaimer: “The opinions and views expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of the DoD, USAF, or U.S. Government.”

These are excerpts from Drones in the U.S. National Airspace System: A Safety and Security Assessment, The Harvard National Security Journal (NSJ),February 24, 2015:

A recent FAA safety report underscores the need for SAA; in 2014 an American Airlines Group regional jet in Florida nearly collided with a drone at 2,300 feet. This type of UAS is supposed to remain within 400 feet of the surface. A collision at 2,300 feet might have ended in tragedy for the 23 passengers and crew. In a similar incident in 2011, an Air Force C-130 collided with an unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan. Though no one was injured, the incident resulted in costly repairs for the C-130. The number of accidents involving only military drones makes the need for SAA apparent. According to the Washington Post drone crash database, “About one-third of the crashes (since 9/11) occurred in Afghanistan, but nearly one-quarter happened in the United States.”

The DOT Inspector General is also concerned that “FAA is not effectively . . . analyzing UAS safety data . . . [and] has not developed procedures for ensuring that all UAS safety incidents are [shared] with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the largest user of UAS.”  Strangely, despite FAA’s overwhelming focus on aviation safety, their regional safety inspectors do not oversee UAS operations in person because inspectors lack the necessary guidance and resources. FAA is retooling its process, but the delivery date for new procedures is September 2015—rather late considering the importance of this issue and the congressional deadline.

While congested airspace will remain problematic for all aircraft, a crowded frequency spectrum is an added issue for unmanned aircraft. In the 2013 UAS Roadmap, FAA observed, “government agencies and industry need to investigate link security requirements [e.g. jamming, hacking, and spoofing].” However, as of June 2014, a DOT audit found UAS frequency space remains unreserved and that security vulnerabilities from link interference remain unresolved.

To address integration problems, FAA established six UAS test sites together with states, universities, and industry. However, research at the various test sites is poorly coordinated. According to the DOT Inspector General, FAA needs to take a more proactive role in directing research to meet its data collection requirements.[ As a partial remedy, FAA, along with NASA and Air Force Research Lab, is sponsoring the UAS Airspace Operations Challenge. The event focuses on developing solutions for SAA and C2 problems. The first phase concluded in September 2014. While this interagency cooperation was encouraging, the Challenge was canceled due to technical problems and cost overruns.

At this point, a delay in the Reform Act’s ordered integration is unavoidable. According to the DOT Inspector General, embracing this delay will afford relevant agencies much needed time to re-establish priorities and conduct further research. After all, it’s better to have fewer UAS operating while preparations are underway than thousands of UAS integrated under poorly conceived policy. The Reform Act serves as a worthwhile first step to support a burgeoning industry, but Congress should not demand integration before the necessary technology is ready…..

The question before us is not if drones will be a part of the National Airspace System (NAS), but how?

Will integration unfold in a safe and reasonable manner, or will we repeat mistakes from history?

The Department of Transportation (DOT) testified to the House Transportation aviation subcommittee that FAA would miss the deadline due to significant technological and safety concerns. From a historical perspective, this is not surprising. The current NAS took years to develop. It resulted from reactive legislation following numerous accidents. Conversely, safe UAS integration will require proactive resolution of many regulatory, legislative, and technological issues. However, the most significant of these are: (1) inadequate safety systems (2) inadequate statutes, and (3) incomplete threat analyses.

The first problem is the technology required to safely implement FAA’s UAS roadmap. According to a DOT audit, “Significant technological, regulatory, and management barriers exist to safely integrat[ing] UAS . . . . Following many years of working with industry, FAA has not reached consensus on standards for technology that would enable UAS to detect and avoid other aircraft and ensure reliable data links between ground stations and the unmanned aircraft they control.” To resolve this, FAA, along with its interagency partners must lead and expand research and development at UAS test sites. Competitive design challenges may also provide FAA with a viable option to accelerate technological problem solving.

In addition to the technological issues, current criminal, civil, and regulatory provisions are inadequate for deterring hazardous use of drones. It’s also vital to address Congressman McCaul’s warning, “that these aerial vehicles could be modified and used to attack key assets and critical infrastructure in the United States.” Additional threat analysis and research on drone capabilities and prospective defense measures is needed. According to Lt. Col. (Ret.) Mitchell, drones “will be one of the worst security . . . issues that we have.”

These latent problems will continue to delay the safe and useful integration of UAS. According to DOT, “Integrating UAS into the complicated U.S. airspace requires an incremental approach, and one that will allow the NAS processes currently in place, as well as those under development, to effectively ensure safety both in the air and on the ground.” While delays may hinder a growing UAS industry and draw unwanted attention to FAA, they will also provide vital time for research, threat assessment, and the implementation of practical solutions.

* Major Stephen Maddox is a US Air Force pilot with experience in manned and unmanned systems and a director with the American Leadership and Policy Foundation.

** Captain David Stuckenberg is a US Air Force Pilot with over 900 hours flying combat and humanitarian missions. Stuckenberg is also Founder and Chairman of the American Leadership & Policy Foundation. 

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Categories: 9/11, Aviation Security, DoD, Drones, FAA, GPS, Latest News, PNT, Purposeful Interference, UAS, WMD, WME - Weapons of Mass Effect