Not Cleared for Takeoff

Lost in all the hub-bub over the presidential election and other major distractions this year was a government plan to base UAVs at six U.S. air hubs.

What, you didn’t hear about the preparations to have unmanned UAVs flying around your state? Perhaps this scheme might have drawn more attention if the Feds had substituted the nickname for the acronym: UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, also known as drones. That’s right, those slender surveillance aircraft that are the pride of the Air Force may be coming to a quasi-civilian runway near you. Put a Hellfire missile on one and you have one of the deadliest weapons in the U.S. arsenal.

Of course, the “civilian” version of the drone won’t be armed. But the proponents of the domestic UAV program envision all sorts of nifty uses for the spy planes, like helping your friendly state troopers enforce the speeding statutes on long stretches of highway far from the nearest donut emporium.

Or say you look like someone on the Department of Homeland Security’s famous no-fly list, which is notorious for including grandmas and toddlers as well as potential bad guys. A UAV can look over junior’s shoulder from 30,000 feet and see if he’s up to no good on his way to and from nursery school. Or maybe you owe the IRS some cash and you’re heading down the Atlantic City Expressway….well, you get the picture. If you don’t, you can rest assured a UAV will, since these high-tech snoopers can read your license plates from the stratosphere.

In July, the Federal Aviation Administration was supposed to select six U.S. test sites for UAVs. According to the government, the purpose of these sites is to determine if remotely piloted unarmed aircraft “can be safely integrated into manned airspace” by 2015.

More than 30 locations across the country have been getting ready to put in their bids to become a UAV test site in a program that potentially may generate billions in revenue for the lucky airstrips. A good example is the Dayton Development Coalition in Ohio, which is touting resources like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Research Lab, numerous university R&D programs and a thriving regional aerospace industry. Dayton, which may be one of the frontrunners in the UAV sweepstakes, also is home to UAV manufacturer SelectTech Services, based in nearby Centerville.

“We’ve done our homework and we have not been idle,” Joe Zeis, Coalition executive vice president and chief strategic officer, told the Springfield Sun-News. “Our goal is to be ready today or six months from today. We’re positioning Ohio to support the FAA in the integration of UAVs into civilian airspace safely and effectively.”

Unfortunately for Dayton and the other UAV candidate sites, the same report in the Springfield newspaper indicates the wait may be a bit longer. This week, acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta notified the members of the Unmanned Systems Congressional Caucus that the FAA has indefinitely delayed the selection of the six domestic test sites for UAVs. Huerta cited safety concerns and privacy issues as the primary reasons the countdown to local drone launchings has been put on hold.

The lingering safety issues are an indication that — even in a controlled test flight setting — adding drones to our overcrowded skies may be a dicey proposition. The privacy issues, which heretofore have been largely ignored or downplayed as the program moved forward, may prove to be a tougher nut to crack.

The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center has actively petitioned the FAA on drone surveillance concerns. Ever-evolving UAV technology is designed to be invasive to privacy and is more efficient than manned aircraft because drones fly longer and closer to the ground, EPIC lawyer Amie Stepanovich told the Sun-News.

If privacy isn’t protected now, UAV surveillance will rise, Stepanovich added. “What drones are capable of today is entirely different than even a year ago,” she noted. [The Pentagon reportedly is developing next-generation drones the size of birds that can fly into buildings through windows.]

According to reports, the Congressional caucus charged with overseeing the drone program — including representatives eager to see airport facilities in their districts selected as one of the six test sites — has expressed its displeasure with the new delay.

A UAV industry representative also is questioning whether the FAA has exceeded its federal mandate in raising privacy concerns. According to Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Washington-based Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International, the FAA’s role is to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the skies, not regulate privacy,

However, West conceded in an interview with the Sun-News there is no consensus on how to let the drones fly and protect privacy at the same time.

“That’s a question a lot of us in the industry have been trying to answer and we don’t have a good answer yet,” she said. Constitutional protections and legal precedent have provided privacy protections, she added, and these have been applied to manned surveillance systems.

“The platform isn’t the issue,” said West. “There’s really no difference between manned and unmanned when you’re talking about privacy.”

That remains to be seen. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the American public has quietly accepted numerous infringements on its privacy in the name of homeland security. We routinely walk past 24/7 security cameras on our city streets and submit to X-ray screening at airports without complaint.

We have known for some time the NSA is intercepting and scanning with supercomputers every electronic communication sent over the Internet, including our email, without a court order. We understand that the president is now empowered to order the killing of an American citizen with a missile fired from a Predator drone, if that citizen is suspected of terrorist activity in a one of the world’s lawless territories.

This is the price we pay for protection from nihilistic murderers in the age of terrorism.

But are we ready to open a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles that includes a speeding ticket accompanied by a photo of our licence plate, snapped by a friendly neighborhood drone?

However long it takes the government to make up its mind, the locations that aspire to be home to one of the UAV test sites say they will be ready whenever the green light is flashed.

As Ohio waits for the federal bidding process to resume, Sinclair Community College has FAA approval for restricted flying of small UAVs at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. The Ohio Army National Guard received approval this year as well to train at the Springfield airport with a hand-launched UAV known as a Raven, said Tom Franzen, economic development administrator for the city of Springfield.

The Air Force also has FAA approval to fly developmental UAVs at the former DHL air hub in Wilmington. The regional plan calls for UAVs to use existing facilities at the Springfield airport and the Wilmington Air Park for takeoff, then fly to military airspace in southern Ohio once used by F-16s from the Springfield Air National Guard Base.

Stay tuned.