Safety a concern as drones catch on
Updated 8/6/2006 10:47 PM ET
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
Crashes of drone planes flying over the USA are worrying pilots and lawmakers who fear that a surge in interest by federal and local agencies to use the unmanned aircraft could lead to danger in the skies.
SKY-HIGH WORRIES:Crash stirs debate on drone safety
Spurred by the success of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the Pentagon says it has seen the number of its drone planes increase from fewer than 100 six years ago to 3,500 in 2006. About 700 of those operate in the USA. Federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, NASA, Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration have expressed interest in using drones for everything from border surveillance to finding lost children.
While most drones are small and fly only above military bases, some large UAVs are allowed under U.S. regulations to enter civilian airspace. President Bush has called for expanding their use to protect the nation's borders, and a handful of local police and sheriff's offices are seeking permission to use the planes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Manufacturers such as Northrup-Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems say UAVs, some with a wingspan greater than a Boeing 737's, will be as safe as other aircraft, perhaps safer. No civilian deaths have been reported from UAVs.
The Air Line Pilots Association and other critics say recent accidents underline the need for caution:
• A Customs and Border Protection Predator B drone, which is as large as some commuter airliners, slammed to the ground within several hundred feet of homes in Arizona on April 25. Its ground operator accidentally shut off its engine, according to a preliminary federal incident report.
• A prototype of an Eagle Eye tilt-rotor plane being developed for the Coast Guard crashed during tests April 5 in Texas. The UAV, which weighs about 2,000 pounds and can hover like a helicopter, went down after an unidentified radio signal triggered a self-destruct mechanism that killed the engine, according to its builder, Bell Helicopter Textron.
• The Federal Aviation Administration criticized the Los Angeles County sheriff for conducting a demonstration flight without permission June 16. The 3-pound drone, which carries video cameras, crashed in a media demonstration.
House lawmakers concerned about crashes of drones involving federal agencies have inserted language in homeland security funding legislation that demands reports on the accidents.
The airline pilots' union and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) say UAVs are not safe.
"We are sharing airspace where we are assured that a certain level of safety is being met, and yet there is no level of safety for these UAVs," said Heidi Williams, air traffic services director for AOPA.
The FAA has created a UAV division and is studying how to draw up standards for drones. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/surveillance/2006-08-06-drone-safety_x.htm
Crash stirs debate on drone safety
Updated 8/6/2006 10:59 PM ET
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
The explosion nearly jolted Barbara Trent out of bed. At first she thought someone had bombed the high-desert scrubland where she lives in southern Arizona.
When daylight arrived a few hours later April 25, Trent and her neighbors realized that what they heard wasn't a bomb at all. Instead, an unmanned drone the government uses to monitor the nearby Mexican border had slammed into a hillside near several homes.
The Predator B, which weighs as much as 10,500 pounds and has a wingspan of 66 feet, had been crippled when its operator accidentally switched off its engine. It glided as close as 100 feet above two homes before striking the ground, says Tom Duggin, the owner of one of the houses. "If it had hit my house, I'd be dead," says Trent, whose home is about 1,000 feet from the crash site.
The crash of the Customs and Border Protection plane has been a catalyst heating up the debate over whether it is safe to operate unmanned aerial vehicles in the nation's airways. Thousands of UAVs regularly fly the skies above the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. As pressure grows to put the UAVs to use in the USA, federal officials and aviation industry representatives are discussing how unmanned aircraft should be regulated.
FEARS OF FLIGHTS: Safety a concern as drones catch on
The debate also addresses the philosophy of what it means to fly. In a sense, UAVs are the first example of robot-like devices roaming the Earth, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology aviation professor John Hansman.
The questions they raise are profound. Can a machine replace the skills of a veteran pilot? If there are no people aboard, should the safety standards developed over the past 100 years for aircraft be eased? Should a human controlling a drone from a desktop computer be subject to the same standards as a traditional pilot?
"The increased use of unmanned aircraft by (the military) is certainly challenging some of the long-held beliefs of organizations that have worked aviation safety for a long time," says Dyke Weatherington, who oversees UAV procurement at the Pentagon.
In hearings before the House Aviation Subcommittee in March, Michael Kostelnik, a retired general who heads Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine, assured lawmakers that the agency's Predator had robust backup systems to ensure safety.
"This redundant system works on all levels, from sensors to the flight computer, and provides a triple-check system to protect the vehicle and others in the airspace," said Kostelnik's written testimony.
In an interview last week, Kostelnik said the crash about 30 miles from Nogales had not changed his mind. He and the manufacturer of the Predator, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, blame the pilot of the drone for the accident. He worked for General Atomics, which flew the Predator under contract with the government.
The pilot told investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that his control panel froze up. When he switched to a second control station, he didn't notice that it was set to shut off the plane's fuel. The switch cut off the Predator's engine.
The drone had been given permission to fly at 14,000 to 16,000 feet, an area that was closed to other planes. After the engine quit, it drifted until it struck the ground.
John Porter, manager of business development at General Atomics, defended the control station's design and said the accident did not reveal any safety issues with the plane. Kostelnik said he hopes to have a replacement Predator flying soon and the agency wants to buy additional Predators.
The accident and other crashes are worrisome to the Air Line Pilots Association. Failures such as the accident April 25 occur too easily, and standards must be created that anticipate problems before they occur, says Capt. Brian Townsend, a safety expert with the association.
"If they want to play the game in the same airspace as us, they must meet or exceed the same levels of safety that we operate in daily — without exception," Townsend said.
Creating those standards will not be easy. There are no rules for how to build unmanned planes that fly in civilian airspace, who is qualified to fly them and how they should steer clear of other aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration has set case-by-case standards for operations such as border surveillance. The agency is reviewing how Customs uses the Predator.
Who does the investigating?
It's not clear who should investigate UAV accidents. The NTSB's statute says it can investigate only severe accidents of planes with people aboard. (The NTSB is investigating the Predator case as an "incident," usually defined as an event that does little or no damage to the plane.)
Teams of aviation industry scientists, academics and government officials are working to draw up a framework for how to regulate drones.
Hansman, who advises the FAA on drones, says work he has done indicates unmanned planes can operate safely with the right technology.
"You are introducing a totally new class of vehicles into the system," he says.
There are no precedents for how to regulate a plane that — as some drones now do — can pick its own route with an onboard computer, Hansman says. "It's the beginning of an era."