Close encounters of a drone kind

June 24, 2014 |

The Washington Post has undertaken a fascinating and comprehensive 3 part report on drones  with

The issues in the US are the same as those in Australia, a rapidly evolving technology which is finding more and more uses within the community and a near paralysis by Federal Government and regulators to deal with it.  In the US the States are stepping in, for good and bad, and regulating the use of drones in their jurisdictions.  In Australia the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has carriage of the regulations from a technical and safety perspective.  It has no control or interest in any other issues which arise from the use of drones, such as privacy and other legal issues arising.

The Privacy Commissioner has raised the issue of drones and their impact on privacy.  The Privacy Act may apply to some drone operations but generally not.  Most drone operators would fall into the category of small business operators while drones operated by journalists would probably be exempt also.  The Australian Law reform Commission is about to release its final report with recommendations about a statutory right to privacy and reform of the surveillance laws.  It is likely to be ignored if not rejected outright.  Another opportunity to be missed.

Part  2 and 3 are the most relevant articles from the Australian perspective.  Part 2,  Crashes mount as military
flies more drones in U.S.  provides:

Shortly after the day’s final bell rang and hundreds of youngsters ran outside Lickdale Elementary School with their book bags and lunchboxes, a military drone fell from the sky.

The 375-pound Shadow reconnaissance drone skimmed the treetops as it hurtled toward the school in Jonestown, Pa. It barely missed the building, then cartwheeled through the butterfly garden and past the playground. The aircraft kept rolling like a tumbleweed and collided with a passing car on Fisher Avenue. People called 911. The rescue squad arrived in a hurry. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The April 3 near-disaster was the latest known mishap involving a military drone in the United States. Most U.S. military drone accidents have occurred abroad, but at least 49 large drones have crashed during test or training flights near domestic bases since 2001, according to a yearlong Washington Post investigation.

A 63-foot-long QF-4 target drone exploded into a fireball at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida last July 17, forcing authorities to close a nearby highway. A Global Hawk, the largest drone in the military’s fleet, crashed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in June 2012. Two years earlier, the military almost had to shoot down a runaway Navy drone after it penetrated some of the most guarded airspace in the country, over Washington, D.C.
The number of accidents has jumped as the military has brought back drones from overseas and operated them more frequently in airspace shared with civilian planes. The military has almost tripled the number of hours its drones have flown annually in shared U.S. airspace since 2011, according to federal data.
Now, the military and the federal government are preparing for a far bigger expansion of drone flights that will transform U.S. aviation — but could also pose the biggest challenge to safe air travel in decades.Thanks in part to a new federal law that will open the national airspace to drones of all kinds, the Pentagon is planning to operate thousands of drones from at least 110 bases in 39 states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico, by 2017.

Drone failures on the home frontAccident investigation documents show that 47 military drones crashed in the United States between 2001 and 2013 in what the military categorized as Class A accidents — the most severe category. The Pentagon is planning to expand drone operations to at least 110 bases in 39 states by 2017.

Budget documents show the military has spent or allocated $1.6 billion for drone-related construction projects in the United States. The Defense Department has about 10,000 drones worldwide, from one-pound Wasps and four-pound Ravens to the 15-ton Global Hawk.

At the same time, under orders from Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration is preparing rules that will allow civilian drone flights across much of the country. The agency predicts that as many as 7,500 small commercial drones could take to the skies by 2018.

 American airspace is safer than ever. Fatal accidents involving passenger carriers have become exceedingly rare. Military and FAA officials pledge that standards will not be compromised to accommodate drones. The Pentagon says that accident rates per flight hour have declined steadily since it began deploying drones to war zones in the early 2000s and that it takes extra precautions when flying at home.
Air Force Col. James Marshall, safety director for the Air Combat Command, said the military has trained regular pilots for generations in the United States, with relatively few accidents, and that flying drones at home will be no different.
“We’re really big into risk management,” he said. “I’m comfortable with what I see with the mitigation approach that we’re taking.”
Michael P. Huerta, the FAA’s administrator, said the agency would integrate drones into the national airspace in stages and only after a careful review of each step.
“We have an extraordinarily safe aviation system, and that’s been through the hard work of a lot of people in industry and their public-sector counterparts to continually raise the bar on safety,” he said in an interview. “As we integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system, I believe that the public expect us not only to maintain but to continue to enhance the levels of safety that we’ve been able to achieve for conventional aircraft.”But thousands of pages of military investigative reports, obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act, show a pattern of pilot errors and mechanical failures that have caused drones to crash in the United States again and again — including drones flying in civilian airspace.

Crashes around the world

The documents also reveal that some military personnel harbor an ingrained distrust of the flying robots.

After a Predator wrecked at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico on July 28, 2010, an unidentified instructor pilot told investigators that commanders had been queasy about having remotely controlled aircraft on the base, fearful that they might crash into buildings.

“The problem is that nobody is comfortable with Predator. Nobody,” the pilot said, according to an interview transcript. He called the malfunction-prone drone “the most back-assedward aircraft I ever flown.”

Scattered opposition to drones has built across the country in the form of protests and campaigns to stop drone strikes overseas or prohibit surveillance by government aircraft.

As crashes gradually pile up, however, some anti-drone groups are recognizing that the planes could also pose a lethal threat at home through accidents.

On Nov. 12, an advanced Reaper drone operated from Hancock Field, an Air National Guard base near Syracuse, N.Y., crashed into Lake Ontario. A few parts washed up on shore, but the Air Force never found the aircraft, which has a 66-foot wingspan, and has not explained what happened.

Ed Kinane, a peace activist from Syracuse and member of a group called Upstate Drone Action, called the crash “a wake-up call.” The Air Force has permission from the FAA to fly Reapers over Syracuse, as well as large stretches of airspace north of the New York State Thruway. “To me, it’s appalling that they’re flying them over urban areas,” Kinane said. “The Pentagon has been so eager to get their hands on drones, and more drones, that they’re not as good as they should be.”

The manufacturer of the Reaper and the Predator is General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the leading producer of large U.S. military drones. Frank W. Pace, the company’s president for aircraft systems, said the Reaper “certainly is” safe to fly in the United States. He was more cautious about the Predator, an older aircraft that the firm stopped making in 2011.

The Predator was a pioneer on the battlefield. It was designed to be cheap and lightweight, he said, with reliability and longevity as lesser priorities. Over the years, General Atomics has upgraded parts of the aircraft to make it safer. But Pace said he would not recommend flying the Predator over towns or cities in the United States.

“You really want to be flying it over areas that aren’t highly populated,” he said. “As a citizen, I wouldn’t want it to happen.”

The Air Force has 150 Predators, many based overseas. In the United States, Air Force officials said, Predators are generally flown only in military airspace. Still, demand is building to move them around for other purposes.

Last August, for instance, the California Air National Guard sent a Predator on a 300-mile journey across the state to provide surveillance to firefighters battling blazes near Yosemite National Park.

‘An eye to the sky’

The airfield at Fort Indiantown Gap is about two miles from Lickdale Elementary School. Few residents of Lebanon County, Pa. — just east of the capital, Harrisburg — knew the Army National Guard had been flying Shadow drones from the Army post.

The year before, state Sen. Mike Folmer (R), who lives five miles away, had introduced a bill that would prohibit state and local agencies from using drones for surveillance. But he had no idea that the catapult-launched drones were flying over his community.

“I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t know what was going on there,” he said of the operations at Fort Indiantown Gap.

Don Bell, superintendent of the Northern Lebanon School District, declined to criticize the Army, noting that many school parents work at the base. He acknowledged, however, that the accident made him uncomfortable.

“It’s definitely a concern,” he said. “We always keep an eye to the sky.”

The Pennsylvania Army National Guard trains with a dozen Shadows. It has authorization from the FAA to fly just outside Fort Indiantown Gap’s restricted airspace, said Harvey Browne, an unmanned-aircraft systems analyst at the Army National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.

The Shadows often fly over Lickdale Elementary as they descend to land, Browne said. The drone that crashed did not stray off-course and was “flying exactly where it was supposed to” when it malfunctioned, he added.

A spokeswoman for Textron Systems, the Shadow’s manufacturer, said the company was prohibited by its Army contract from publicly discussing operations.

Bill Irby, senior vice president and general manager with the company, said in a statement that the Shadow has recorded about 900,000 flight hours and “continues to perform with high availability and reliability rates for customers in some of the world’s most challenging environments.”

‘A sick airplane’

The military provides the FAA with data on its drone accidents. But the agency will not release the information, saying the Pentagon provides it on the condition that it not be made public. The Pentagon will not disclose the data, either, deferring requests to each branch of the armed forces.

In response to Freedom of Information Act filings and other public-records requests, the armed forces released records identifying 47 major drone crashes in the United States between 2001 and 2013.

Since then, at least two more accidents have occurred. In addition to the Shadow that wrecked in Pennsylvania on April 3, a QF-4 target drone from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico crashed Feb. 7 on land that is part of White Sands National Monument.

The Post’s tally of 49 drone crashes since 2001 understates the scope of the problem. The armed forces would release records only about “Class A” accidents — crashes that, under current standards, inflicted at least $2 million in damage to the aircraft or other property. Locations, dates and circumstances of mishaps that resulted in less damage were withheld because officials said they did not require a public investigation.

The military also withholds details about dangerous incidents in which a crash is narrowly avoided.

On Aug. 2, 2010, the Navy lost control of a one-ton MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter drone during a test flight from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The drone buzzed 23 miles to the northwest and entered highly restricted airspace surrounding Washington.

Commanders at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, set up to defend against Soviet attacks, prepared to scramble fighter jets to shoot down the runaway drone. But before the jets took off, controllers regained the satellite link with the Fire Scout and flew it safely back to base.

The Navy kept the incident quiet until three weeks later, when word leaked to reporters.

“It’s headed right for the heart of the National Capital Region,” then-Vice Adm. James Winnefeld, head of the U.S. Northern Command at the time, recounted to reporters. “Do you let it run out of gas and hopefully crash in a farmer’s field, or do you actually take action to shoot it down? You certainly don’t want to shoot it down over a populated area if you can avoid it.”

Navy officials said the drone came no closer than 40 miles to the Capitol. Jamie Cosgrove, a Navy spokeswoman, said a software anomaly prevented the drone from flying its preprogrammed route in the event of a lost satellite link. The Navy denied a request from The Post for its investigative report on the incident.

How drones are controlled

The Patuxent naval air station has been involved in two other serious incidents. A Fire Scout helicopter drone crashed on Oct. 24 during a “hard landing” on the runway; officials declined to give other details, citing a pending investigation.

The worst mishap occurred June 10, 2012, when a drone with a wingspan as big as a Boeing 757?s spun out of control over Southern Maryland.

Two minutes after takeoff, the RQ-4 Global Hawk maritime surveillance drone made an uncommanded, hard turn to the right. A mechanism that controlled steering and elevation was failing, according to warnings the drone broadcast to the ground-control station at Patuxent.

All members of the flight crew were contractors from Northrop Grumman, the drone’s manufacturer. The planned route was over the city of St. Mary’s. But the pilot changed its course.

“I didn’t want to take a sick airplane over populated areas,” the unidentified pilot said in a statement, according to the Navy’s 383-page accident report.

Moments later, the drone pitched over and the pilot lost control. It zigzagged over the Chesapeake and Maryland’s Eastern Shore before crashing in a wildlife refuge and igniting a fire that burned for hours.

The Navy acknowledged the crash after locals saw the smoke and a television news helicopter arrived. An unidentified Navy captain at Patuxent sent an e-mail to several commanders, warning that the incident might stir public concern about runaway drones.

The handling of the investigation “will be watched,” the captain wrote.

Investigators concluded the faulty steering mechanism was to blame. A Navy commander also had harsh words for the pilot.

“Failure to adhere to emergency protocols did not produce disastrous results in this particular event; however, future breaches of established procedures could produce a different result,” the commander wrote. He recommended the pilot’s contract “be thoroughly reviewed.”

Cyndi Wegerbauer, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman, declined to comment.

 Detect and avoid
The FAA prohibits drone flights in civilian airspace except in limited circumstances. The primary reason: Unlike planes with pilots in the cockpit, drones cannot reliably detect or avoid other aircraft, presenting a greater risk of a collision.
The military and drone manufacturers are working on technology that could satisfy the FAA’s “detect and avoid” rule. But installing radars or collision avoidance systems is not expected to be feasible for several years.
To get around the rule, the armed forces or government agencies need to obtain a certificate from the FAA.Each certificate allows a specific type of drone to fly in a defined area with restrictions. For example, chase planes might be required, or ground observers might need to be posted to look for other aircraft. At some sites, radar data is fed to drone pilots at a ground-control station.

Up in smoke

In the distance, heavy smoke rises from Tyndall Air Force Base, where a 63-foot-long QF-4 target drone exploded into a fireball on July 17. The crash in Florida forced authorities to close a highway. (Dylan Dunaway/Associated Press)

As of April 16, the Defense Department held 161 certificates to operate drones in shared airspace — almost double the number from two years earlier. It soon expects to fly more drones in shared airspace than in military-only areas, said Dyke Weatherington, director of unmanned warfare for the Pentagon.

Weatherington said the armed forces need more room for training. He characterized the military’s safety record as good and said it has increasingly won the trust of the FAA.

“Every year we continue to make improvements,” Weatherington said. “And I can say unequivocally that [the Defense Department] will continue to drive down the accident rate.”

Although the FAA requires the military to take extra precautions, they do not always work.

On Aug. 31, 2010, in Palmdale, Calif., the Air Force assigned a chase plane — a Cessna 210 — with two men aboard to follow a new $10.3 million Reaper on a test flight. The Reaper, with a cruising speed of 230 mph, was designed to be a bigger, faster and more reliable version of the Predator.

About two hours after takeoff from the Gray Butte airfield in Los Angeles County, the chase pilot watched as the Reaper suddenly slowed and went into a spin.

“Hey, are you okay?” Curtis Hamilton, the civilian chase pilot, shouted by radio to the drone crew in the ground-control station, according to a voice-recorder transcript. “Pull up! Pull up!”

The drone pitched over and corkscrewed toward the ground. When crew members heard it had crashed onto private property, they feared the worst.

To their relief, word arrived that the area was an empty field: “Okay, we didn’t kill anybody or we didn’t hurt anybody,” Staff Sgt. Juan Abado, the camera operator, recalled during an interview with investigators.

Investigators blamed the accident on pilot error. They concluded the drone pilot allowed the aircraft to slow down too much and was too narrowly focused to notice that it was about to stall.

The pilot, Maj. Jonathan L. Shill, testified that things spiraled out of control so quickly that he did not have time to save the aircraft.

“This is me speculating, I guess, but I think anybody would say I couldn’t, just couldn’t get there in time, not mentally,” he said. “I had a few more seconds and it was over.”

Extra precautions

A few months earlier, at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, commanders ordered extra safety measures for a new fleet of Predators. Worried that the drones might crash into base housing if they lost their wireless links, they required that a backup ground-control station be in place for test flights.

Drone crews thought the backup station was overkill. But commanders at Cannon were “very uncomfortable” with drones in general, an unidentified instructor pilot told investigators. “It’s very hard to explain it to people,” he said. “They think of ‘Terminator’ or something like that.”

Instructors’ nerves were also frazzled. Under pressure to deliver more drone crews for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, they rushed through training. Some predicted a mishap was inevitable.

“They felt we were running so fast that sooner or later we were bound to stumble,” an unnamed Air Force major told investigators.

On the morning of July 28, members of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron was preparing for test flights. An unexpected fog rolled in.

As soon as it lifted, a crew commanded a Predator to taxi toward the runway. Right away, things went awry.

The control links sputtered, and video screens in the ground-control station went fuzzy. The Predator zoomed off, even though the pilot had not touched the throttle. He pressed a button to slam on the brakes, but the drone did not slow down.

It barreled off the runway and smashed into a fence, winding up in a cornfield. “It could have been a lot worse,” the instructor pilot recalled. If the plane had been assigned to a different runway, he said, it “would have been heading right towards the hangar where there are people, other aircraft.”

The Predator crew was perplexed. It was as if someone had hijacked the drone’s remote controls.

Investigators determined that’s essentially what happened. As the drone started to move, a crew member in the backup ground-control station hit a switch and “hostilely” took control of the Predator without realizing it. The backup station was programmed to run the throttle at high speed, so the drone accelerated and crashed.

Coming home

With the Afghan war waning, Pentagon officials are planning where their drones will go next.

 “Assuming the president of the nation decides we’re going to have a very small presence, if any, in Afghanistan after 2014, they’re going to by and large come home,” said Steve Pennington, the Air Force’s director of bases, ranges and airspace.
In an April 2012 report, the Defense Department notified Congress it was planning to base drones at 110 sites in U.S. territory by 2017. A new Pentagon document, obtained by The Post, suggests that ambitions have grown. It states that the military is preparing to fly drones from 144 U.S. locations.
The sites will be used primarily for training. Pentagon officials said they also expect to receive more requests from civil authorities to deploy drones during natural disasters and other emergencies.
Several years from now, Pentagon officials hope to integrate drones completely into the national airspace, they said. Large drones would take off from the same airports as regular planes.
Such a scenario is not far-fetched. Pennington noted that the military flies drones alongside fighter jets and cargo aircraft from the Kandahar air base in Afghanistan — one of the busiest military airfields in the world, with roughly the same number of takeoffs and landings as Miami International Airport.
Most military drones fly far more slowly than regular planes; designers gave them small engines and kept them light so they could stay aloft as long as possible. Pennington said they have not posed a problem for air-traffic controllers at Kandahar. He said regular aircraft have been responsible for a higher percentage of hazardous-air-traffic reports than drones.
Records show, however, that drone crews have butted heads with air-traffic controllers in several locations.
In Djibouti, a country on the Horn of Africa where the Pentagon has a large base, the government forced the U.S. military to move its drones to a desert airstrip last year after a string of accidents at the main airport.
In the Seychelles, an Indian Ocean archipelago, the Air Force had to stop flying drones in April 2012 after a Reaper pilot forgot to ask civilian air-traffic controllers for permission to take off. The drone crashed a few minutes later.At Kandahar, some drone pilots have complained that air-traffic controllers treat them like a nuisance, exacerbating risky situations. “They know that we’re slow, and they don’t like us,” a supervisor of Air Force drone operations told investigators after a Predator crash-landed at Kandahar on May 5, 2011.

On Jan. 30, 2012, a Predator with a dead engine was descending toward Kandahar. The pilot faced a decision: ditch the drone into a field, or try to glide to the airfield. A crew member told investigators that the tower did not take “our emergency seriously and gave the pilot a hard time about his requests.”

In the end, the pilot intentionally crashed outside the base perimeter, destroying the $4.5 million Predator but sparing troops on the ground.

“If we would have continued to try to make the runway, we wouldn’t have made it and it could have cost people their lives. I’m sure it would have,” he told investigators.

Part 3 Close encounters on rise as small drones gain in popularity provides:

On the same day last month, airline pilots trying to land at two of the nation’s busiest airports got on their radios to report the unnerving sight of small rogue drones buzzing at high altitudes.

In the first incident on May 29, the pilot of a commercial airliner descending toward LaGuardia Airport saw what appeared to be a black drone with a 10-to-15-foot wingspan about 5,500 feet above Lower Manhattan, according to a previously undisclosed report filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the second, two airliners separately approaching Los Angeles International Airport soared past what they described as a drone or remote-controlled aircraft the size of a trash can at an altitude of 6,500 feet, FAA records show.

The records do not name the airlines involved or say how close the aircraft came to the drones when they flew past. FAA officials said their inspectors could not track down the unregistered drones or determine who was flying them. “In many cases, radar data is not available and the operators cannot be identified,” the agency said in a statement.
The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian airplanes and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace. Hazardous occurrences are becoming more frequent as more drones — legal and illegal — take to the skies, according to a year-long investigation by The Washington Post:
  • In 15 cases over the past two years, drones flew dangerously close to airports or passenger aircraft, including the incidents in New York and Los Angeles, according to reports submitted to the FAA. On May 3, the pilot of a commercial airliner preparing to land in Atlanta reported a small drone with four legs and bright lights “in close proximity” to his plane, according to the FAA records. The agency recently disclosed that the pilot of a US Airways plane reported a near-collision with a drone or remotely controlled model aircraft over Tallahassee Regional Airport on March 22 in Florida.
  • A different set of records suggests that risky midair encounters are even more common. A NASA database of confidential complaints filed by pilots and air-traffic controllers has recorded 50 other reports of close calls or improper flight operations involving drones over the past decade.
  • Civilian drones flown with the FAA’s permission and under its scrutiny are also susceptible to crashes. Since November 2009, law enforcement agencies, universities and other registered drone users have reported 23 accidents and 236 unsafe incidents, according to FAA records.

Drone failures on the home front

Accident investigation documents show that 47 military drones crashed in the United States between 2001 and 2013 in what the military categorized as Class A accidents — the most severe category. The Pentagon is planning to expand drone operations to at least 110 bases in 39 states by 2017.

Civilian drone incidents are also rising. Public agencies have reported 23 accidents involving authorized drones since 2009. And the FAA says pilots have reported 15 close calls with small rogue drones near airports in the past two years.

The problem is worsening just as the federal government is preparing to lift barriers that could flood the country’s already congested skies with thousands of remotely controlled aircraft. Under a law passed two years ago, Congress ordered the FAA to issue rules legalizing drones for commercial purposes by September 2015 — the first step in a new era of aviation that will eventually allow drones of all sizes to fly freely in the national airspace, sharing the same airports as regular planes.

Congress imposed dual mandates on the FAA that the agency has struggled to reconcile. Under the law, the agency must draft rules for drones as soon as possible so businesses can exploit their economic potential. The FAA must also ensure that safety standards are not compromised and passenger aircraft are not imperiled.

The FAA is facing pressure to move faster from drone manufacturers, the military, members of Congress and many companies that see remotely controlled airplanes as a breakthrough technology. The drone industry complains that it is losing $27 million in economic benefits a day while the FAA prepares regulations for certifying drones and licensing pilots.

The FAA says it is moving as quickly as it can.

“I completely understand that there is significant potential, there’s significant benefit, there’s great things that unmanned aircraft can do. We need to be convinced that they can do so safely,” Michael P. Huerta, the FAA’s administrator, said in an interview.

“Every day in America people are getting on airplanes. Every day people are seeing airplanes in the sky,” Huerta added. “But they’re not really worried a lot about whether it’s safe. It’s their expectation that these things, that unmanned aircraft flying around in our airspace, will meet that same level of safety. And we owe that to them.”

The longer the FAA takes to finalize its rules, the more rogue drones are taking to the skies.

Thanks to rapid advances in technology, small satellite-guided drones with powerful miniature cameras can be bought online for less than $500. Flying drones as a hobby is permitted as long as operators keep them below 400 feet, away from populated areas and at least three miles from an airport, according to the FAA. But those restrictions are being flouted and ignored.

On May 5, a quad-copter — a drone with four rotors — crashed into the 30th floor of St. Louis’s Metropolitan Square building, the city’s tallest. In March, the FAA fined a Brooklyn man $2,200 for striking two midtown Manhattan skyscrapers with his quad-copter before it nearly hit a pedestrian. In August, a small drone with multiple rotors crashed into the grandstand at Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie County, injuring three spectators.

Even drone advocates worry that the skies are becoming a free-for-all.

“We have to understand that the industry is at risk because of illegal drone usage,” Krista M. Ochs, a General Dynamics executive, said last month at a drone-industry conference in Orlando. “If we have a major catastrophe that involves some type of midair collision, it could set us back years.”

Overwhelmed regulators?

In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, legislation that ordered the federal government to “safely accelerate” the integration of civilian drones into the busiest airspace in the world.

At the time, the military had been flying drones overseas for more than a decade, revolutionizing warfare by keeping pilots on the ground and out of harm’s way. Defense contractors who invented the technology saw even bigger potential to sell drones to private businesses and other government agencies. Industry groups projected a market with $8 billion in annual revenue.

Until then, the FAA had been moving slowly and cautiously, issuing a handful of permits for the military, law enforcement agencies and universities to fly drones under restrictive conditions. The new law ordered the FAA to hurry it up. Lawmakers set a deadline of Sept. 30, 2015, for the FAA to develop a comprehensive plan and allow civilian drones to begin flying on a more regular basis.

The FAA has approved six sites across the country to test drones and produce data that will shape safety standards. Officials said they will first propose rules for drones weighing 55 pounds or less. Regulations for larger aircraft will take significantly longer. Both sets of rules could take years to finalize. In an interim step, FAA officials say they may grant permits to filmmakers, farmers, and the oil and gas industry to use small drones under limited circumstances.

Manufacturers of drones and businesses that want to buy them are losing patience. They warn that foreign companies will steal the market if the FAA does not act swiftly. “We have got to be able to understand what the standards must be, and we have got to start fielding this technology,” Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the drone industry’s trade association, said in a May 30 speech to the Aero Club in Washington.

 Pro-drone lawmakers are also frustrated. “I am desperate to see this potential unleashed,” Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation panel, said at the drone-industry conference in Orlando. “Sometimes I think government bureaucrats are too cautious in holding people back.”
The FAA is feeling the heat from other corners. Civil libertarians are predicting a surveillance state run amok if the FAA does not issue privacy guidelines for government drone operators — an issue that Congress did not address in the 2012 law.
Many small-aircraft pilots and air-traffic controllers argue that allowing drones to fly alongside regular planes makes no sense. Greg Cromer, a private pilot from Stephens City, Va., submitted a letter to the FAA saying that he was “vehemently opposed” to the whole idea.
“I can see no way to prevent a collision with something that could be as small as a bird or kitchen appliance,” he wrote.
Close calls
Posing the most immediate threat to air traffic is the proliferation of small, unauthorized drones that can reach previously unimaginable heights.
On Sept. 22, while at an altitude of 2,300 feet over Phoenix, a pilot reported a near-collision with a black-and-white drone the size of a basketball, according to records the FAA released with many details redacted. The pilot reported that the drone was 200 feet ahead and closing in. The pilot swerved left and the two aircraft missed each other by 50 feet.Small drones usually do not show up on air controllers’ radar screens and often go undetected by traffic collision avoidance systems installed on other planes. Pilots, in incidents to date, were caught unaware until they peered out their windows and spotted the unidentified flying objects at uncomfortably close range.

On March 25, 2012, a pilot was flying 11 miles northwest of Houston at 2,000 feet when he saw what he described as a drone just 100 feet below his plane. The mysterious aircraft disappeared in a blur before the pilot could get a better look. He notified the control tower, but it could not find the drone on radar.

The elusiveness of small drones and the absence of a registration or licensing system make it extremely difficult for the FAA to hold culprits accountable.

The agency has imposed fines against two drone operators. In addition to the Brooklyn man, in 2011 the FAA penalized a videographer $10,000 for using a drone to produce a promotional film about the University of Virginia Medical Center.

The FAA accused the videographer, Raphael Pirker, of flying a 56-inch-long foam drone recklessly, swooping close to people on the ground. In March, after Pirker challenged the fine and said he was operating in a safe manner, a federal administrative-law judge overturned the penalty, finding that the FAA had exceeded its regulatory authority.

The agency has appealed, but the ruling cast further doubt on the agency’s ability to police drone flights until it can finalize the new rules mandated by Congress. Last month, The Post and other news organizations filed a legal brief in support of Pirker, arguing that the FAA’s de facto ban on commercial drones was overly restrictive and threatened journalists’ First Amendment rights to use drones to gather the news.

 ‘Looked like a hawk’
The NASA database suggests that dangerous brushes between drones and passenger aircraft are more common than the FAA acknowledges.
In July 2013, a commercial air carrier was approaching LaGuardia Airport at 7,000 feet when the crew spotted a small, black object zipping toward the larger aircraft, just 500 feet below it. The crew thought it was a drone but “couldn’t really make out much more than that because it happened so fast.”
The first officer reported the incident anonymously to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a database project run by NASA. The system encourages pilots, air-traffic controllers and others in the world of aviation to submit confidential reports about unsafe incidents without fear of getting entangled in enforcement actions by the FAA. Precise dates and other identifying details are stripped out of the reports before they are posted in the publicly accessible database.
Since 2005, the system has received 50 reports of unsafe incidents involving drones. Some were minor infractions or deviations from airspace regulations. Others were near-disasters.
Many of the incidents involved military drones flying outside restricted airspace. In March 2013, the pilot of a Bombardier CRJ-200 regional airliner was descending toward the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport in Virginia when the captain saw something that looked like a hawk circling in the distance.
It wasn’t.“A few seconds later, what we thought looked like a hawk took the shape of an aircraft with wings,” the captain reported. As the distance between the two aircraft narrowed, the Bombardier turned right to avoid a collision. The drone turned, too. “For about five seconds it seemed to chase us,” the captain said in his report.

 The drone flew “extremely erratically,” performing rolls and loops before passing to the left of the passenger aircraft. Three military helicopters also flew by at a safer distance. The angry jetliner captain called the airport to complain about the “careless and reckless” maneuvering of the drone pilot and demanded to know who was responsible. Airport officials responded that “they could not officially tell us what it was,” the pilot reported.
One month earlier, at another Virginia airport, controllers were similarly evasive after the pilot of a corporate jet reported a near miss with what he suspected was a drone. The pilot was descending toward Leesburg Executive Airport, about 35 miles from Washington, when his traffic collision avoidance system rang an alarm — another aircraft had suddenly closed within 200 feet.
The jet’s first officer looked out and saw a gray aircraft with a twin boom and a long wing, “different from any normal light aircraft I have ever seen.” The captain asked air-traffic controllers whether it was a drone, “given our proximity to Washington.” A supervisor came on the line to acknowledge that controllers were tracking the aircraft but would not say what it was. “If, in fact, this was a UAV,” the first officer wrote in his report, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicle, “then the obvious solution is to keep UAVs out of civilian airspace.”
Chris Stephenson, an operations coordinator with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, described the pending integration of drones into the national airspace as “a tsunami headed for the front porch.” He predicted that it would take several years to devise reliable technology that would allow large drones to take off and land from the same airports as passenger planes.
In the short term, however, small rogue drones are presenting a bigger challenge. Stephenson said it was his personal opinion that the FAA may need to regulate the sale of cheap, remotely controlled aircraft to further discourage unlicensed operators from flying in risky areas.
“The FAA’s got a big load to take care of because these things are running away from them,” he said.
Border patrol crashes
Even FAA-approved drones that fly under carefully monitored conditions are susceptible to breakdowns and accidents.
On Jan. 27, the generator failed on a drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on a surveillance mission over the Pacific Ocean. The Predator B drone — a civilian version of the Air Force’s advanced Reaper aircraft, with a 66-foot wingspan — lacked enough battery power to return to its base in Sierra Vista, Ariz. The pilots decided to ditch the $12 million aircraft into international waters, about 20 miles southwest of San Diego, according to FAA and Customs and Border Protection officials.The aircraft was one of 23 FAA-approved drones operated by civilian agencies and universities that have crashed since November 2009, according to previously undisclosed FAA records.

The FAA has granted certificates to dozens of federal departments, law enforcement agencies and universities to fly civilian drones, subject to restrictions on where and when they can operate.

Civilian agencies have reported 236 unsafe or abnormal incidents to the FAA since 2009, the records show. The vast majority of incidents involved drones flown by Customs and Border Protection, which has accounted for more than three-quarters of all flight hours by FAA-certified drones.

After the loss of the aircraft that crashed in January, Customs and Border Protection now operates a fleet of nine unarmed Predator B’s from bases in Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Dakota. The agency’s drone surveillance program began in 2005 but got off to a ragged start. One drone crashed 100 yards from a house in Nogales, Ariz., in April 2006, prompting the National Transportation Safety Board to chide the agency for “providing a minimal amount of operational oversight.”

NTSB records show that three Predator B’s belonging to Customs and Border Protection have been involved in previously unpublicized hard landings that damaged the aircraft. A spokesman for the border agency declined to comment.

Hacking and spoofing

Civilian drones are vulnerable to another safety threat: hacking.

Drones rely on GPS signals to navigate and are controlled by pilots or operators on the ground via a two-way radio transmission link.

The military protects the communications and navigation links it uses to control drones with highly advanced encryption technology. Civilian drones, however, generally rely on unencrypted satellite links and radio transmissions that can be hacked, jammed or spoofed.

In June 2012, a University of Texas at Austin aerospace engineering professor and a team of students gathered at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to perform a demonstration. Before the eyes of officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the team of academics used a hand-built device to stealthily seize control of, or spoof, an $80,000 Hornet rotorcraft drone flying about a kilometer in the distance.

 The team transmitted false signals that fooled the drone into thinking it was flying high when it fact it was plummeting toward the ground. The spoofers from Texas changed course at the last minute and averted a crash.

Todd E. Humphreys, the professor who led the team, said spoofing a drone is not simple. It took him and his students about three years to perfect their technique. But he said rapid technology improvements are making the task progressively easier.

In an interview, Humphreys said it would not be cheap or easy to build defenses against hackers. If the FAA permits widespread commercial drone traffic before effective solutions are in place, he predicted, “the hackers will come out of the woodwork.”

The most pressing concern, he said, are the large Predator B drones that federal Border Patrol agents fly along the long borders with Canada and Mexico. Humphreys said he is skeptical that Homeland Security officials have secured the navigation links well enough to thwart hackers.

“They’ve never offered any evidence of that, and I don’t know how that can be true,” he said. “It’s a huge vulnerability.”

One Response to “Close encounters of a drone kind”

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