The FAA currently approves the use of UAVs, or drones, on a case-by-case basis over U.S. skies. To date, the Department of Defense has received the largest number of approvals, 201, followed by academic institutions, NASA, local law enforcement and other federal agencies. Opening U.S. airspace to more drone traffic, including those for commercial purposes, requires a coordinated plan with new systems and processes.
Legislation passed by Congress last year requires the FAA to establish six drone test ranges in the United States, but privacy concerns about the collection and use of data have delayed the opening of the ranges. Without the hard data on UAV performance that would be generated by test ranges, it's difficult for the FAA to draft the safety, reliability and performance standards that Congress requires.
There are other challenges to "integrating" drones into U.S. airspace. "UAS integration is an undertaking of significant breadth and complexity," Gerald Dillingham, GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues, said in his testimony.
[ Want more background? Read Drones To Fly U.S. Skies, In DOD Plans. ]
For one thing, the sense-and-avoid technology needed to let drones automatically avoid piloted aircraft isn't mature. Among the methods under consideration is a ground-based system under development by the Army that has been successfully tested, but which might not be suitable for all drones. A second approach involves the use of the same GPS-based transponder system being planned for the FAA's NextGen air traffic management system.
A third possibility is a NASA-tested system that uses GPS and avionics to transmit a drone's location to ground receivers, which forward the information to other aircraft with the right kind of avionics.
The potential for "lost link" communications between ground control and the UAV is another issue. Drones typically have preprogrammed instructions on how to operate if those communications are lost, but air traffic controllers need access to that same information. Standard procedures have not yet been created.
Dedicated radio spectrum for command and control is also needed. Drone now use unprotected spectrum, leaving them vulnerable to interference, either intentional or accidental, and the potential for loss of control. Similarly, GPS signals could be used to keep air traffic control informed of a drone's whereabouts, but low-cost devices are available that can jam those signals.
The FAA faces a series of deadlines, some of which it has already missed, related to the UAV integration effort. Congress tasked the agency with creating a five-year roadmap for assimilating drones into the national airspace. The roadmap, due earlier this month, is circulating within the FAA but has not yet been publicly released.
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