Congress Calls for Accelerated Use of Drones in U.S.

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Steven Aftergood
February 3rd, 2012

A House-Senate conference report this week called on the Administration to accelerate the use of civilian unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or “drones,” in U.S. airspace.

The pending authorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration directs the Secretary of Transporation to develop within nine months “a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”

“The plan… shall provide for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.”

The conference bill, which still awaits final passage, also calls for establishment of UAS test ranges in cooperation with NASA and the Department of Defense, expanded use of UAS in the Arctic region, development of guidance for the operation of public unmanned aircraft systems, and new safety research to assess the risk of “catastrophic failure of the unmanned aircraft that would endanger other aircraft in the national airspace system.”

The Department of Defense is pursuing its own domestic UAS activities for training purposes and “domestic operations,” according to a 2007 DoD-FAA memorandum of agreement.  (“Army Foresees Expanded Use of Drones in U.S. Airspace,” Secrecy News, January 19, 2012.)

Update: In the recently enacted FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (section 1097), Congress mandated that “the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall establish a program to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system at six test ranges.” This new test range program is supposed to be established within 180 days.


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  1. Questions for my worthless Congressman:

    – Why are you doing this, precisely? I observe there is no reference to terrorism in the summary language of the authorization bill. Did you forget? May I assume from this that you are abandoning even the fiction of terrorism concerns to justify your expansion of power?

    – Please provide the name of the lunatic who contemplates interweaving the very busy commercial air traffic over the U.S. with these UAS drone things in a safe manner. I wish to send him a UAS award of my own: the Unusually and Awesomely Stupid Award.

    – Subsidiary to the above, please explain the rationale for subjecting U.S. citizens to the TSA carcinogenic scanners and porno-gropes on the ground for safety purposes, only to expose them to the dubious thrill of Aerial Bumper Cars overhead.

    – What is a “test range”? I learn from a separate source that the purpose of these test ranges is to “demonstrate safety technology”. While I am reassured that you in fact meant to say “demonstrate” rather than “troubleshoot”, I remain uneasy as to the consequences of failure of such tests over, say, Detroit.

    Well, okay, maybe not Detroit; maybe a *nice* place, like over my house. In the spirit of cooperation and support, I would be happy to facilitate the location of my house for your program. Look for the roof that has a giant fist with upraised middle digit painted on it.

    – I see that the Arctic is included as a “test range”. While it is common knowledge that terrorists and other criminals are known to dress up in tuxedos and hide amidst penguin flocks, I must protest the risk to our penguin friends in the event of safety failure.

    On the other hand, this may raise the ire of the environmental weenies, which could scotch the whole program. So go ahead.

    – This plan will cost $63 billion. How is the broke-ass government intending to pay for this?

    – Why are the drones called unmanned when there is a man on board?

    Thank you for your rapid response.

    • Good one, Gail. I hope you send that in.

      I’ve read that drone operators in the air force have above-average levels of PTSD. Hm, I wonder why that could be? Does it have anything to do with watching one’s self killing innocent people who are 8000 miles away? Nah, couldn’t be. And hey, if there are a bunch of operators flying drones locally get all gloomy and depressed, won’t that be bad?

  2. Aside from the disconcerting thought of having peeping toms looking through your windows with Hellfire missiles at their fingertips, this is unnerving from the pilot’s perspective because it greatly increases the chances of midair collisions.

    I must admit I don’t know much about these systems; I don’t know how great of a field of view they provide the operator (a pilot actually sits in the airplane so they don’t get the title in my opinion) or at what altitudes they operate, but I do know with absolute certainty they can’t look out the window.

    If they’re flying at altitudes below 10,000 feet the potential for conflict with general aviation VFR flights is very real, and increases greatly over the congested urban areas where they’re sure to operate these. Air traffic control does not provide radar services to VFR pilots unless specifically requested, and they are not required to grant the request. The onus is on the pilot to maintain separation, and that means keeping a good visual scan at all times. A “pilot” sitting in a cubicle simply cannot do this. So there will be only one pair of eyes doing what used to be the job of two, because the other pair is busy looking for marijuana grows or God knows what.

    The likely outcome of this is the privileges of general aviation pilots will be curtailed to accomodate the R/C snoop aircraft of the national security state. Doubt that surprises anyone here.

    • Politics aside, it’s depressing.

      The idea of robotic aircraft – no more pilots – makes me sad.

      Remember the Eloi from HG Wells’ Time Machine? A race of helpless, infantilized, emasculated human appetizers for the Morlocks who ran the machines?

      • “The Time Machine” is more complex than the movie would have people believe. The Eloi are what became of the ruling class. The Morlocks are from the working class. Most people become morlocks.

        The basis is that the working class was kept underground serving the ruling class but over time those on the surface became the food of those doing the work.

        It’s been too long since the class I took on HG wells, but its got a fair amount of class and eugenics in it. I wish I had kept the book on “Things to Come” but I sold it at the end of the semester.

        The sci-fi texts that are seemingly the correct ones are not the ones most people would name as a desired future.


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