Want an unmanned aircraft or two with that?

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

In August, Washington was abuzz over an unmanned Northrup Grumman Firescout helicopter that escaped Navy test controllers and headed towards D.C. at 2,000 feet. With all the hubbub here every time a C-150 busts the big post-Sept. 11 ADIZ, GA pilots would have enjoyed seeing the military this time on the 6 p.m. news, spread-eagle on the tarmac.

Didn’t happen. But on Sept. 9, a follow-up story revealed the military had even contemplated shooting down its uncontrolled UAV. A fun thought for D.C. and its Maryland suburbs. The Firescout did penetrate the ADIZ but guidance was restored through another, closer ground station. Firescouts were grounded until they find what went wrong.

We’re seeing more UAV emergencies in the news. Also in August, an MQ-9 Reaper belonging to the USAF Aeronautical Systems Center crashed one mile north of El Mirage Airfield near Edwards AFB, California. (One of the earliest incidents saw a UAV impact the median of a western Interstate highway!)

Early on, UAVs flew with escort aircraft – a safety measure for us, but self-defeating to the concept of unmanned or autonomous operation. Agencies are now pressing for such operations in domestic airspace. It’s starting to happen. Did we notice?

I had informal conversations on this with GAMA and AOPA officials during the NextGen conference last spring. GAMA President Pete Bunce voiced surprising enthusiasm for UAVs. AOPA government affairs VP Melissa Rudinger sounded supportive but with caveats.

A prime issue is UAV operation in VFR traffic at the lower altitudes. In other words: YOU. I understand how IFR ops can be done in IMC or at the flight levels. And my initial concern about Kansas City’s interest in replacing police helos with UAVs is not warranted, I’m told. They would operate in Class B airspace against known traffic under positive control. But amidst VFR traffic in regular airspace?

The supporters’ mantra is “Sense and Avoid.” Get it? Replace “See and Avoid” (by old Mark One eyeball) with “Sense and Avoid.” The machine senses your presence and maneuvers accordingly. Dandy! That probably means reading your transponder on a TIS-like system. But what else? How about NORDO aircraft or transponder failures? Will UAVs use FLIR or other synthetic vision? Will that sensor be read and reacted to by a remote operator or by a computer? How fast and how well? Want to bet your family on it?

I expected UAVs in domestic airspace to raise more eyebrows. Despite their effective use in Iraq and Afghanistan, a track record in war zones does not translate to Florida or Arizona. I now note more guarded positions on the issue. AOPA’s brief says their members “continue to express concerns over collision hazards.” Good.

I missed the AUVSI trade show in Colorado this August. (The organization represents the many genres of autonomous vehicles, including UAVs.) I could have learned more. But clearly, UAVs are a concern for people in the air and on the ground. I helped AUVSI reps contact the right AOPA people last spring. They are aware that AOPA is a key constituency on the issue.

I guess I’m surprised this is not a “screamer” and pilots aren’t up-in-arms. Maybe it’s all still “under the radar,” a phrase not funny when it comes to UAVs!

NextGen promises more precise, non-radar ATC surveillance and some automated traffic alerting. But that’s more than a few years away. Details on GA equipage are not yet worked out. Personally, I need more assurance about “Sense and Avoid.”

No doubt UAVs offer new, cost-effective capabilities in many important areas from border patrol to search-and-rescue. But at what price to the GA we know today?

Keep an eye AND an ear on this one. We may have to “Sense and Avoid” ourselves!

Story © Drew Steketee 2010 All Rights Reserved


  1. Mark C says

    The level of risk acceptable in a war zone is vastly different from that acceptable in civilian airspace under no emergency conditions.

    MOA’s are bad enough when flying a Champ or Cub, but at least you know those pilots don’t want to die, either. UAV’s don’t offer even that level of comfort.

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