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Hullabaloo


Monday, February 16, 2015

 

Look! Up in the sky!

by Tom Sullivan

Commercial drones. Those GoPro-equipped gadgets for hobbyists, news crews, professional photographers, and drunk, off-duty, intelligence employees. Maybe even for Amazon package deliveries. (In your fever dreams, maybe.) The FAA announced proposed rules governing their use on Sunday:

The U.S. aviation regulator proposed rules on Sunday for commercial drone flights that would lift some restrictions but would still bar activities such as the delivery of packages and inspection of pipelines that have been eyed by companies as a potentially breakthrough use of the technology.

The long-awaited draft rules from the Federal Aviation Administration would require unmanned aircraft pilots to obtain special pilot certificates, stay away from bystanders and fly only during the day. They limit flying speed to 100 miles per hour (160 kph) and the altitude to 500 feet (152 meters) above ground level.

Just a tentative toe in the water, a camel's nose under the tent. But it's an announcement that will send eager technophiles rushing to buy the latest in remote-control spy-ware, and encourage what NPR reported last night could be a $2 billion commercial drone sector. These rules also are meant to prepare the public for further expansion of the program and assuage privacy concerns, etc., etc.

Drone testing and approval has been in the pipeline since at least late 2013:

The FAA has already permitted approximately 300 "public organizations" to fly drones, said FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette in an interview with Common Dreams. This includes drones used by law enforcement and Customs and Border Enforcement for the purpose of aerial surveillance.

Duquette said she would not disclose the numbers of drones in U.S. airspace armed with military grade weapons or spying capabilities.

Excuse me? But worry not, officials said Sunday:

"Today's proposed rule is the next step in integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our nation's airspace." FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a conference call with reporters. "We are doing everything that we can to safely integrate these aircraft while ensuring that America remains the leader in aviation safety and technology."

[snip]

"From entertainment, to energy, to agriculture there are a host of industries interested in using UAS to improve their business," Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Transportation Department said. "But for us at U.S. DOT the first threshold always is and must be keeping the American people safe as we move to integrate these new types of aircraft into our skies."

Yes, but. Lest you think — as yesterday's reports suggest — we're just talking about hobbyists, Eyewitness News, or even the police flying plastic toys in commercial airspace, there's a little more to it (from February 2012):

"We're going to bring aircraft back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're going to train in the [continental U.S.]," said Steve Pennington, the Air Force's director of ranges, bases and airspace, and executive director of the Defense Department's FAA policy board. "So the challenge is how to fly in nonsegregated airspace."

The Pentagon too has been working with the FAA to open up U.S. airspace to its fleet of big-boy toys, nearly 7,500 combat drones (also from February 2012):

The vast majority of the military's drones are small — similar to hobby aircraft. The FAA is working on proposed rules for integrating these drones, which are being eyed by law enforcement and private business to provide aerial surveillance. The FAA expects to release the proposal on small drones this spring.

But the Pentagon is concerned about flying hundreds of larger drones, including Global Hawks as well as MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, both made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in Poway.

And last week Congress approved legislation that requires the FAA to have a plan to integrate drones of all kinds into national airspace on a wide scale by 2015.

The Department of Homeland Security announced its intention to double its fleet of Predators in late 2012. If Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Atomics have their way, there could be 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in U.S. airspace by 2020.

Maybe like me, you first remember the phrase "unmanned aerial vehicles" from George W. Bush's scaremongering, Cincinnati speech about Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and WMDs in October 2002. Back then, we were supposed to soil ourselves and go to war over the prospect of military UAVs in our skies. Ah, but we were young and foolish then.

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a Predator!

(h/t Barry Summers)