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FAA Could Clear Drones for Civilian Role

Small, unmanned aircraft are poised to go to work in industry.

Low-flying drones weighing less than 55 pounds could take to the air in a few years to monitor pipelines, inspect farmland or compile information for real estate maps, said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va.

It could all happen if the Federal Aviation Administration allows it. And if recent news doesn’t scuttle the plan.

Federal authorities reported during the week of Sept. 26 that they arrested a Massachusetts man who allegedly told undercover agents that he planned to use large, radio-controlled model airplanes to deliver explosives to the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. The Boston Globe reported that Rezwan Ferdaus, 26, entered not guilty pleas on Oct. 3 in a Worcester, Mass. federal courtroom to charges filed in connection with the case.

Since the news broke, reporters have sought out model airplane enthusiasts and unmanned aircraft experts, who have said it’s tough to make a hobby shop airplane into a bomb. Among other things, model aircraft are difficult to fly and can’t carry much of a payload, West said.

“I think the FAA knows the near impossibility” of the task,” she said.

‘Stay the Course’

Still, the AUVSI issued a statement Sept. 30, acknowledging the arrest and saying the FAA must “stay the course” in its plan to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. The association warned against enacting “burdensome regulations.”

The FAA is writing rules for business or commercial aircraft which weigh 55 pounds or less, and fly at maximum altitudes of 400 feet, West said. The rules are expected to be published in 2013.

In addition, pending FAA reauthorization bills call for integrating unmanned aerial systems in the national airspace by 2015.

“We always say this: The bottom line is safe integration,” West said.

As for security, “AUVSI feels we need more intelligence, not more regulation,” the association’s statement said.

Jim Zortman, a former naval aviator and an executive with unmanned aircraft builder Northrop Grumman in Rancho Bernardo, also argued against tighter regulations on the technology. People can use cars, trucks or airplanes to deliver bombs, Zortman said, but “we haven’t banned cars, trucks and airplanes.”

Zortman, who retired as a three-star admiral and previously worked as “air boss” at Naval Air Station North Island, said unmanned aircraft are evolving much along the lines of manned aircraft 100 years ago: First airplanes were a novelty. Then the military started using them in earnest. Today, the civil aviation sector is much larger than the military sector.

The same thing could happen to unmanned aircraft, he said.

In the future, Zortman said a commercial aircraft operator might be able to use military technology to cut crew sizes. A freight aircraft requiring three to four people could instead use one or two.

The World Leader

The United States is poised to become a world leader in the growing business of unmanned aircraft, Zortman argued. What the country should not do, he said, is “cede leadership to others.”

For the present, the FAA keeps a tight lid on unmanned aircraft in the United States. It allows the Department of Homeland Security to fly variants of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.’s Predator aircraft for border surveillance — but that’s an exception rather than the rule.

Consider that Northrop will soon have to deliver a prototype, unmanned carrier aircraft called the X-47B to the U.S. Navy’s Patuxent River base in Maryland.

It won’t be able to fly there, Zortman said. It will have to cross the United States on the bed of a truck.


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