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Are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles a Threat to Small Aircraft Pilots?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been a controversial aviation topic for decades. The U.S. military began experimenting with UAVs as early as World War I. In 1916, A.M. Low’s "Aerial Target" was the first attempt at an unmanned aerial vehicle, and by the late 1950s, UAVs could be sent on a mission and recovered.

By definition, a UAV is an aerial machine that does not carry a human operator, and is controlled remotely by a pilot/navigator or can fly autonomously based on pre-programmed flight plans. UAVs use aerodynamic forces to provide power and lift, are expendable or can be recovered, and can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload. Drones are not considered UAVs because they are strictly remote-piloted aircraft. Cruise missiles are also not UAVs because they are designed to be expendable and not recovered.

Military R&D Advances UAVs

Historically, UAVs have been developed and used by the military as a way to survey or spy on large areas without putting human flight crews at risk. As technology advanced, military confidence in using armed drones grew, but unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) have been known to not reach their targets and incur collateral damage. Military research and development of UAVs continues to thrive, heightened by the war on terrorism. In fact, since 2006 more than 1,900 combat terrorists have been killed by UAVs.

This year at Edwards Airforce Base, a new generation of unmanned spy planes are being tested over the Mohave Desert. These UAVs can fly higher, faster and carry more weapons than UAVs before them. One new UAV known as the Global Observer has a wingspan of a Boeing 747, can fly for days at 65,000 feet, out of range of most anti-aircraft missiles, and can survey 280,000 square miles — an area the size of Afghanistan — on a single mission.

Civilian Use of UAVs and FAA Approval

UAVs have been used for civilian domestic purposes for many years, including aerial surveillance of pipelines, search and rescue missions, agricultural crop dusting, animal tracking, monitoring of forest fires and hunting hurricanes. As UAVs become more advanced and affordable, they will no doubt be used for more civilian jobs, especially if the Federal Aviation Administration makes it easier to get approval.

Currently, the FAA approves domestic civilian and government use of UAVs on a case-by-case basis. This is a slow process made slower by the increasing numbers of UAV applicants. But the approval process may change soon. As soon as December, the FAA may release a ruling allowing certain small UAVs to share national airspace with manned aircraft. The proposed ruling could come out as soon as December, and will be followed by a review period before a final rule is administered.

UAVs a Hot-Button Issue

The topic of civilian use of UAVs is a hot-button aviation issue for several reasons. First, there is concern about the intrinsic safety of UAVs. Are communication and control links truly reliable? Can a UAV "think" its way out of an unexpected collision and avoid crashing into a populated area? The Government Accountability Office doesn't think so. In a 2008 report, the GAO stated that, "no technology has been identified as a suitable substitute for a person on board the aircraft in seeing and avoiding other aircraft."

Secondly, there is growing concern that UAVs may start to take jobs away from small aircraft pilots. A conference in Montreal sponsored by Unmanned Systems Canada addressed this question. While industry representatives think that unmanned freight and passenger operations will happen in the next 30 or 40 years, UAVs still have a long way to go before they start to affect human pilots.

Thirdly, what if UAVs fall into the wrong hands? The recent arrest of Rezwan Ferdaus reminds us what could happen if terrorists turn technology against us. Ferdaus, a 26-year from Ashland, Mass., was planning to use three small unmanned drones packed with plastic explosives to crash into the U.S. Capital and Pentagon buildings. While Ferdaus was caught, how many terrorists are out there planning similar attacks? The recent arrest of Ferdaus may cause the FAA to rethink relaxing approvals for UAVs. And domestic terrorism fears aside, the FAA is unlikely to let UAVs share significant national airspace with piloted planes carrying passengers until they are proven to be failsafe.

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