Drones Over America

Imagine that drones (unmanned aircraft) are regularly flying over your neighborhood. On the way to work or to the market, you look for Predators or Reapers in the sky. Where are you? Baghdad? Afghanistan? North Waziristan (where drones are called "jasoos," or spies)? You might be. You could also be near Miami or somewhere along parts of the U.S. border. Or anywhere in the U.S., perhaps, in 15 years.

The drones flying above you in the future might be spying for the police or the Department of Homeland Security, supporting first responders at a disaster, or conducting a scientific experiment. They also might be on a military training mission. For now, drone flights over the U.S. are strictly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because of safety issues. Unmanned aircraft currently lack the technology to avoid in-flight collisions, the worst-case scenario being a drone/commercial jetliner collision.

Because of current limitations, the Department of Homeland Security’s unmanned border patrols must fly in air corridors segregated from manned aircraft. Outside of those corridors, chase planes are required as a safety precaution. In spite of the fact that many law enforcement agencies are eager to fly drones, the FAA has approved test use only for the Miami-Dade police department, though the FAA has been under increasing pressure to allow more flights. Long-term, the regulatory and technological challenges are to create a system in which drones share our domestic skies with all air traffic (commercial and general aviation aircraft). Short term, this year the FAA is slated to complete an unmanned aircraft regulatory plan to partly accommodate the Defense Department. It has also set up a lab to study how to handle civilian and law-enforcement drone use.

Surveillance is a key capability of unmanned aircraft. In fact, drone surveillance is described as a public service in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR, Part 91). The military can fly drones with few prohibitions in the restricted airspace they control in the U.S., but that is not large enough to provide sufficient training time. The Department of Defense’s unmanned aircraft inventory has grown from less than 50 to over 7,000 in the last 10 years. And it will be ever increasing. In fiscal year 2010, the DOD requested approximately $6.1 billion for new drones and upgrades. This dramatic increase has created the urgency for expanded U.S. airspace access, particularly for Air Force and Army drones.

Based on the proposed drone inventory in fiscal year 2013, the Pentagon expects the armed services to need more than one million flight hours of unmanned aircraft training within the U.S. According to a March 2010 GAO report, this is unlikely to happen under current restrictions and also because the Defense Department has failed to fully develop the necessary support facilities and personnel. In 2004, the Pentagon released its first "airspace integration" plan for unmanned aircraft, which optimistically expected military drones to have complete access to U.S. National Airspace System by this year. The Air Force now estimates that this will more likely occur around 2025.

Currently, all U.S. government organizations, including the military, must be issued a Certification of Authorization (COA) by the FAA to fly drones in the U.S. outside of "restricted and warning areas." Authorization is not automatic, potentially taking up to 60 days. COAs are issued on a case-by-case basis, typically for specific areas and for no longer than a year.


In 2009, there was a two-day summit at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado to seek solutions to the domestic restrictions on drones. At least 10 government agencies were represented by some 100 leaders. (No significant changes were announced.) In an Associated Press interview about the summit, John Allen, director of Flight Standards Service for the FAA, said, "I realize that (the Defense Department) has been very comfortable with using UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) at will in Iraq and Afghanistan airspace and there is a reality check when they bring them stateside and try to utilize them and realize there are restrictions."

U.S. manufacturers are also concerned about that "reality check." According to an article by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI)—the world’s largest organization concerned with unmanned systems—from early 2009, the industry has "shifted from passive to proactive" in efforts to improve drone access to U.S. airspace. The major reason is "to counter powerful new thrusts by the European unmanned community." (Drones are referred to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS, as well as UAVs. A UAS basically consists of a drone plus all the necessary support systems and equipment.)

Another group, the UAS National Industry Team (UNITE), was started by seven major companies, including Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and General Atomics. Rockwell Collins, one of its members, created a promotional eBook called Five Steps to Facilitating the Convergence of Manned and Unmanned Aviation. It predicts that "soon, all aircraft will be able to ‘plug in’ to see and be seen in next generation airspace." In contrast, FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said in a speech last November, "UAS is not plug-and-play."

A variety of articles on the Internet express the impatience of the military and other entities with the FAA. According to one, military authorities are "clamoring to use more drones" in U.S. airspace. "FAA Acts or Drones Stop Flying" is the title of a 2009 article about the Army’s needs to train drone pilots in the U.S. It also mentions the Air Force "struggling to find the sweet spot with the FAA." According to Public CIO Magazine, the FAA ban on general UAS use also "rankles" U.S. police forces such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In spite of the frustration, a lot of effort is being directed at expanding drone access in U.S. domestic airspace. The FAA established the Unmanned Aircraft Program Office (UAPO) in 2006 to ensure a safe integration for all types of UAS in our skies. A formal agreement was signed between the FAA and the Department of Defense in 2007 to collaborate on the military’s requirements. There are various task forces at work, such as the multi-agency UAS Executive Committee. In its Fiscal Year 2011 estimated budget, NASA allocated $30 million per year for FY 2011-14 to address "operational and safety issues" involved in drone integration.

Among the most important safety requirements, the FAA will not grant routine domestic airspace access to drones until they are equipped with certified sense and avoid technology. The most basic way for pilots to avoid in-flight collisions is to see and avoid other aircraft. For unmanned aircraft, the approach is to create a "sense and avoid" system. As stated in a Pentagon plan, drones must match "the safety provided by the manned collision avoidance system as a whole, not just the performance of the human eye." Certifiable sense and avoid technology has added advantages for the military besides fulfilling a major air safety requirement, as it will enable Air Force drones to avoid colliding with each other and fly in formation. The United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047 describes some future scenarios.

Unmanned formations will supposedly have the "same mission efficiencies" as formations of manned warplanes, which includes "cooperative target engagement." As technology develops, the aim is for one pilot to remotely direct and monitor a "swarm" of partially autonomous drones, to create "a focused, relentless, and scaled attack." Alternatively, a UAS may be assigned as a loyal wingperson, flying in support of a manned aircraft.

The Army has tested the combined effectiveness of manned helicopters and Shadow drones. The helicopters by themselves were able to locate 70 percent of the intended targets. The helicopter/drone combination found 90 percent of the targets. The Shadow, far in the lead of a squadron, can send back an enemy location before the helicopters can be seen.

The FAA assigned the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), a non-profit standards organization, to create minimum UAS sense and avoid performance standards by approximately 2015. However, that date is "highly dependent on industry resources being applied at a fairly high and consistent level," according to FAA spokesperson Les Dorr. After receiving the standards, the FAA will then need "a significant amount of time" to validate them.

Swarms of Killer Drones

An unclassified version of the Air Force UAS Flight Plan 2009-2047 was released in May 2009. (The plan ends at 2047 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the USAF.) In April of this year, the Army released the first edition of their plan: "Eyes of the Army: U.S. Army Roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems 2010-2035."

Unmanned/manned aircraft integration in U.S. airspace is not the end point of either plan. Once the U.S. has a working system, the Air Force hopes to use that model as a precedent to gain "full airspace access worldwide" for its drones. There are currently 44 countries that fly drones. In the future, unmanned aircraft will probably cover the globe, not to mention unmanned land and sea vehicles. UAS integration into civilian airspace is presented as one step "on the path toward autonomous capability." Technological advances are expected to increase the potential autonomy of drones. The Air Force plans to incrementally approve the independent actions of these machines. Programming "based on human intent" is key to the development of drone trustworthiness.

An example of a type of autonomous capability can be seen in the MIT video Robust Aerial Navigation in GPS-Denied Environments. "Denied" coordinatesfrom GPS satellites because it is indoors, a small helicopter with four rotors makes its own maneuvering decisions. It successfully flies through an office environment with sheets of drywall placed as barriers. As the video relates, drones that don’t need GPS would be very useful for search and rescue inside buildings, civil engineering inspection, and a variety of other tasks. Though it must be manually controlled, teenagers with enough money can already purchase a small drone to fly indoors. It works via Wi-Fi and also flies outdoors if it can pick up a signal. The "toy" is flown by an iPod Touch or iPhone. Its real-time video stream can be overlaid withvirtual enemy planes to engage in a mock dogfight.

The military is also interested in very small "Nano" drones that can perform indoor surveillance without the aid of GPS. These drones are not molecular robots as the name might suggest, but might be the size of a fly. Nanos would also be capable of outdoor flight. The Army Roadmap includes an illustration of a UAS Nano swarm—dragonfly-like Nanos fill the air in support of a street corner assault. Nanos supposedly will be able to "fly, crawl, adjust their positions, and navigate increasingly confined spaces." Nano swarms are projected to be a reality by 2025.

The Air Force’s UAS Flight Plan also mentions the future possibility that bio-mechanical Nanos might have the capability to kill, requiring "legal and doctrinal development" on how they can be used. Eventually, the Air Force expects all unmanned aircraft and related systems and equipment to need "little, if any, human presence unless required for acceptance." This projected autonomy includes automated maintenance, auto air refueling, and the UAS capacity of making strikes on their own initiative. According to a Popular Mechanics article, the Army is against using "a platform" that can kill autonomously. Colonel Chris Carlile, director of the UAS U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, stated, "It comes down to this: the technology will exist before we, as a people and as a nation, will accept it."

In contrast, the Air Force is more equivocal. Its UAS Flight Plan states: "Authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions. These include the appropriateness of machines having this ability, under what circumstances it should be employed, where responsibility for mistakes lies, and what limitations should be placed upon the autonomy of such systems. The guidance for certain missions such as nuclear strike may be technically feasible before UAS safeguards are developed.… Ethical discussions and policy decisions must take place in the near term in order to guide the development of future UAS capabilities, rather than allowing the development to take its own path apart from this critical guidance."

Once the technological and regulatory system is in place and the novelty disappears, Americans might adjust to the presence of drones. A kid’s book, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Children’s Press, 2007), suggests: "So think about it the next time a plane flies overhead. Do not be surprised if there is no one inside. Someone, maybe a soldier or police officer, could be piloting it from many miles away. Just smile and wave. You may be witnessing an important part of military history…an unmanned aerial vehicle at work!"

That military history hasn’t quite arrived, at least in the U.S. Elsewhere, it is doubtful that drones are greeted with smiles and waves. Predator strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have killed thousands of people. Domestic plans involving unmanned aircraft are just starting to draw some attention. No one knows exactly how drones will affect our daily lives in the future. Whatever evolves, major changes will eventually come to the skies above your neighborhood.


Mike Reizman works as a technical writer and freelance journalist.