February 8, 2012

12 in '12: FAA Re-Authorization Bill to open airspace to drones

The recently-passed FAA re-authorization bill mandates that UAS integrate into the US Airspace within 3 years. This is a major victory for UAS manufacturers who will be seeing a major decline in sales now that the Iraq war is over and Afghanistan is winding down.

In 2009, the FAA's re-authorization mandated full integration of UAS into the national airspace in five years (2014). However, three years later there is still no published progress in this area. As is well known, the biggest hinderance to integration is the lack of a capable see-and-avoid system so UAS can avoid colliding with other aircraft. This could be solved by mandating the use of an IFF/TCAS system on all aircraft, or having all UAS fly on an instrument flight plan. However, neither of these solutions are plausible in the current airspace environment. An instrument flight plan works well for a Predator- or Global Hawk-sized aircraft. For smaller vehicles such as Shadow 200s, Ravens or other small UAS will likely make up the majority of the national UAS fleet do not carry transponders, and the missions they will perform will be locally launched, locally operated. Additionally, there aren't enough controllers to handle the added workload of so many UAS operating in their airspace on local missions.

The only difference between now and 2009 is that the US drawdown overseas is closing or severely limiting the UAS market in the military. Therefore, its politically expedient to open UAS operations in the national airspace so a new business sector can open up. This will allow the UAS industry to keep production levels, and limit layoffs. These are important political tools in the ongoing recession.


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