Regulating drones a daunting challenge

Despite their public safety potential, much work remains in determining how UAVs should be used


"Look up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No, it’s....."  For those of a certain age the only response would be Superman.  Nowadays, however, it is more likely to be "the neighbor’s drone again."  Drones, also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or more accurately, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), have been in existence since the mid-19th century when they consisted of hot air balloons filled with bombs that were launched by the Austrians in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Venice. In modern terms, a drone is an aircraft that does not have an onboard human pilot.  It may be remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground or be completely autonomous and flown by computers.

Drone technology has advanced significantly since those early days where most efforts were directed toward military applications, predominantly to provide target practice for anti-aircraft gunners in the early part of the 20th century. After the Soviet Union shot down Francis Gary Powers in the U-2 spy plane in 1960, the U.S. Air Force began a classified program to develop unmanned aircraft in earnest, mainly for surveillance purposes using photography.  The first UAV capable of real-time surveillance, called the Tadiran Mastiff, was developed by Israel in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War to provide high-resolution video via a radio data link. This aircraft could remain in the air for seven hours, thus providing unprecedented on-station endurance.

Current military drones can range from insect size to the equivalent of a Boeing 757.  They are used both in surveillance and offensive combat roles.  The Black Hornet Nano, in use by the British Army, is a micro unmanned vehicle that looks like a small helicopter.  It measures approximately four-by-one-inch and weighs about half an ounce.  It contains a camera that can provide both full motion video and still photos and has a flight time of about 25 minutes. Combat drones that carry ordnance, typically missiles, include the well-known Predator and Reaper. 

Under development is the Triton which has a wingspan of 130 feet and an array of sensors that can provide a 360-degree view in a radius of 2,000 miles. It will be able to sustain operations for 24 hours at an altitude of 50,000 feet.  Aviation Week has reported development of a large unmanned reconnaissance aircraft called the RQ-180 that incorporates stealth technology.

In more recent years, the uses of drones have spread well beyond military applications into the civilian sphere. However, this expansion has surpassed the capability of the government to regulate their use adequately at the present time.  In 2012, Congress instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to "develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system."  As a consequence, the FAA has begun to develop regulations to ensure that unmanned aerial vehicles can operate safely and be integrated into the civilian airspace without putting existing manned aircraft, people and property on the ground at risk. 

The FAA has authorized the use of unmanned aircraft in the civilian airspace since 1990 but, by policy, limited its uses to those which relate to public safety such as firefighting, search and rescue, disaster relief, law enforcement, border surveillance, military training and testing and evaluation.  These unmanned aircraft, the FAA states, should fly only under controlled conditions and not be permitted over major urban areas.  Model aircraft typically used by hobbyists are covered, according to the FAA, by a recreational use exemption and limited to altitudes below 400-feet above ground level in areas that are distant from airports and air traffic.  The FAA has specifically stated that this exemption does not apply to individuals or companies that plan to operate model aircraft for business purposes.

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