Can One Single Service Control All Military Drones?

general atomic

A decade ago, as the U.S. military scrambled to gear up for unexpectedly lengthy wars, the Air Force declared that it should oversee all Pentagon drones that flew higher than 3,500 feet. Its argument was simple: these new weapons were being developed and purchased in tremendous quantity and significant diversity. Without a single controlling agency, the thinking went, the various services’ drones might waste money, fight poorly together, or even blunder into the path of another service’s manned aircraft.

The Air Force lost that battle when Army and Navy leaders teamed up to block what they saw as an epic power grab, and today’s leaders say they have no desire to refight it. But with the U.S. military once again preparing to drastically expand its drone presence, some say it’s time to think about putting high-flying UAVs under one organizational roof.

“There needs to be someone with oversight that is actually pulling together and assuring the interdependency of the systems that each of the individual services are developing,” said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who oversaw the Air Force’s drone and intelligence operations and pushed for a single-service executive agent. “That would go a long way to solving many of the challenges that exist in terms of providing sufficient capability to meet the demand that’s out there for UAVs.”

Air Force leaders say they have no interest in revisiting that battle.

“I don’t think the debate would be helpful or particularly useful right now,” Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a Pentagon press briefing Monday. “The debate was contentious when we had it…It was divisive and it was not helpful in my view.”

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Pirker v. Huerta Ruling Clears Path for UAS Integration


Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officially placed model Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) within the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) definition of aircraft. The Nov. 18 final ruling in the Huerta v. Pirker case overturns a previous decision by Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty and allows the FAA to take enforcement action against anyone operating commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems inappropriately. The milestone decision isn’t radical for those that have their finger on the pulse of the industry, however.


University of Maryland receives COA for Talon 240 UAV flight


The US Federal Aviation Administration has issued a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to the University of Maryland unmanned air vehicle test site to carry out flight testing using the UAV Solutions Talon 240.

Flying should begin in December and will see the fixed-wing electric vehicle fly from the Crisfield Municipal airport in Maryland.

“Use of the Talon 240 to demonstrate safe and responsible integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the airways will contribute to the advancement of the use of this technology in the national airspace system,” UAV Solutions chief executive Bill Davidson said in a statement.

The university said the CAO was the result of the first use of its airworthiness process, which is modelled after the US Navy’s standards for safety and reliability of UAVs.

The university has close connections with the US Naval Air Systems Command, and the Talon was designed for use by militaries and universities that need a platform to conduct operations and research.

The 61kg Talon 240 has an endurance of between 2.5 and 3.5 hours and a payload capacity of 5.5kg, with nose- and belly-mount payload positions.

The carbonfibre and Kevlar design has a 20ft wingspan and a modular battery compartment, and it can take off via a pneumatic launcher or from the back of a pick-up truck and then belly-landed.

The university is also part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) – a group of six universities charged by the US Congress with carrying out a programme to integrate unmanned aircraft into US airspace.

Under this programme, the FAA granted the site two-year COAs for seven UAVs. In addition to the Talon, they include the Smart Road Flyer, eSPAARO, Aeryon Sky Ranger, Mantra2, Sig Rascal and two Avid EDF-8 micro UAVs.

FAA Can Make All Drone Flights Illegal

Some very bad news for drone pilots this morning: An appeals board has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration has wide latitude to make all drone flights illegal in the United States.

​The decision, by the National Transportation Safety Board, determined that the FAA’s existing “aircraft” regulations can apply to model aircraft, drones, and remote controlled aircraft, which is perhaps the most restrictive possible outcome for drone pilots in a legal saga that has dragged on for more than a year.

The case, ​which we have covered extensively, concerns Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, a Swiss pilot who was fined $10,000 by the FAA for a “reckless flight” at the University of Virginia in 2011. There was nothing overly interesting about Pirker’s flight, other than the fact that he was paid for his work—something that the FAA has been trying to say is illegal for quite some time now. Pirker originally won his court case, in which a federal judge ruled that model aircraft aren’t technically “aircraft” subject to the FAA’s existing regulations.


Pirker’s original flight​.

The appeals board disagreed, saying that the federal “definitions on their face do not exclude even a ‘model aircraft’ from the meaning of ‘aircraft.’”

“Furthermore, the definitions draw no distinction between whether a device is manned or unmanned,” the board wrote. ” ​An aircraft is ‘any’ ‘device’ that is ‘used for flight.’ We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.”

The decision is close to what the FAA originally pushed for, ​which is so broad that perhaps frisbees and baseballs could be considered “aircraft.”

And that’s the devastating part of this decision for drone enthusiasts: The FAA’s existing aircraft regulations cannot be reconciled with its guidelines for model aircraft flights. ​ The statute that the FAA used to fine Pirker suggests that any flight by an “aircraft” below 500 feet can be considered reckless. The FAA’s model aircraft guidelines, meanwhile, suggest that any flight over 400 feet by a drone is unsafe and potentially illegal.

” With this decision, the NTSB has declared model aircraft, paper airplanes and even children’s toys to be ‘aircraft,’ subject to the same regulations as 747s, which ignores entirely the fact that for decades none has ever been treated as such,” Peter Sachs, a Connecticut-based lawyer and founder of the Drone Pilots Association told me. “I don’t think that’s what Congress ever intended or that common sense and logic support today’s NTSB’s decision.”

Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer, told me that the court failed to address “whether the safe operation of drones for business purposes is prohibited by any law” and said that he is “reviewing options for our next steps in the Pirker case.”

In this particular instance, the case was sent back down to a lower court for more evidence gathering and a discussion of whether Pirker’s flight was actually “reckless.” But, considering the FAA’s definition that any flight under 500 feet by an aircraft is reckless, that seems like a mere formality.

“While we disagree with the decision, today’s NTSB ruling in the Pirker case is narrowly limited to whether unmanned aircraft systems are subject to an aviation safety regulation concerning reckless operation,” Schulman said, which is “an issue that the NTSB has said requires further factual investigation before a penalty is imposed.”

So, for the time being, any drone flight by anyone in the country can be considered “reckless” by the FAA under the NTSB’s latest ruling, meaning that the FAA can fine you $10,000 for flying one anywhere, for any purpose. And the fact that “any device that is used for flight” can be considered an aircraft seems to suggest that even tiny toy aircraft are subject to the FAA’s whim.

Whether that’s likely is another question altogether, but it’s sure to have a chilling effect on the industry until the FAA releases clear drone regulations—something that it says it will do before the end of the year. It has missed multiple deadlines for that, so I wouldn’t hold your breath. The state of drone regulations were already a mess—things just got a bit messier.

NTSB Ruling

Here Come the Swarming Drones


Insect inspired aerial vehicles could evolve into useful minions to track, map, and respond to climate change.

Since the dawn of entomology (more or less), scientists have been pondering the question posed so eloquently in “High Hopes,” a song Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote for the 1959 movie A Hole in the Head, starring Frank Sinatra:

Just what makes that little old ant think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?

Stephen Pratt, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, knows the answer as well as anyone. He runs Pratt Lab, where researchers study how insect societies source food, build nests, and generally get along. The very short answer, he said, is that ants use collective, decentralized intelligence to perform complex tasks. It helps that they also lack an instinct for self-preservation and are focused only on actions that advance the group’s missions.

These characteristics have piqued the interest of robotics engineers such as Vijay Kumar, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He and the researchers in his General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception Lab (GRASP) are developing “swarms” of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that work in concert. These devices take hundreds of measurements each second, calculating their position in relation to each other, working cooperatively toward particular missions, and just as important, avoiding each other despite moving quickly and in tight formations. Kumar and his colleagues are using intel from Pratt’s lab, particularly around how ants communicate and cooperate without any central commander, to make swarming UAVs even more autonomous.

India: Drone Ban Hurting Industry Companies


Several companies have had to stop using drones to provide services such as aerial photography after the aviation authority banned the operation of these unmanned vehicles in civilian airspace until regulations are in place.

The decision has set back plans of companies offering a variety of services using drones, including those by online retailer Amazon to deploy them to speed up delivery of products to consumers, according to defence analyst Debajit Sarkar of research firm Market Info Group.

Mumbai-based Airpix, with clients such as Reliance Energy and builders Kalpataru and Omkar Realtors, had to stop offering its flagship aerial photography service since the Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued the circular earlier this month.

“We have reached out to DGCA and we are yet to figure out what to do,” said Shinil Shekhar, the 25-year-old cofounder of Airpix.

Although aerial photography was its core offering, the company said it plans to launch a new product next month that will help contribute to revenue.

The DGCA is in the process of formulating regulations and globally harmonising them for certification and operation for use of unmanned aerial systems in Indian civil airspace, the regulator said in a circular dated October 7.
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Inside Google’s Secret Drone-Delivery Program

A zipping comes across the sky.

A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap. The delivery slows, almost imperceptibly, just before it hits the ground, hardly kicking up any dust. A small rectangular module on the end of the line detaches the payload, and ascends back up the vehicle, locking into place beneath the nose. As the wing returns to flying posture and zips back to its launch point half a mile away, Parfitt walks over to the package, opens it up, and extracts some treats for his dogs.

The Australian test flight and 30 others like it conducted in mid-August are the culmination of the first phase of Project Wing, a secret drone program that’s been running for two years at Google X, the company’s whoa-inducing, long-range research lab.

Though a couple of rumors have escaped the Googleplex—because of course Google must have a drone-delivery program—Project Wing’s official existence and substance were revealed today. I’ve spent the past week talking to Googlers who worked on the project, reviewing video of the flights, and interviewing other people convinced delivery by drone will work.

Taken with the company’s other robotics investments, Google’s corporate posture has become even more ambitious. Google doesn’t just want to organize all the world’s information. Google wants to organize all the world.

During this initial phase of development, Google landed on an unusual design called a tail sitter, a hybrid of a plane and a helicopter that takes off vertically, then rotates to a horizontal position for flying around. For delivery, it hovers and winches packages down to the ground. At the end of the tether, there’s a little bundle of electronics they call the “egg,” which detects that the package has hit the ground, detaches from the delivery, and is pulled back up into the body of the vehicle.
That Parfitt would be the man on the receiving end of the tests was mostly happenstance. Google’s partner in the country, Phil Swinsburg of Unmanned Systems Australia, convinced him to take part in the demonstration deliveries launched from a nearby farm. (Australia’s “remotely piloted aircraft” policies are more permissive than those in the United States.)

Standing with Parfitt as he received dog treats from a flying robot was Nick Roy, the MIT roboticist who took a two-year sabbatical to lead Project Wing. In all the testing, Roy had never seen one of his drones deliver a package. He was always at the takeoff point, watching debugging information scroll up the screen, and anxiously waiting to see what would happen. “Sergey [Brin] has been bugging me, asking, ‘What is it like? Is it actually a nice experience to get this?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t know. I’m looking at the screen,’” Roy told me.

So, this time, as he prepared to end his tour of duty at Google X and return to MIT, he watches as the Wing swoops and delivers. Recalling that moment, he struggles not to sound too rapturous or lose his cool technical objectivity. “Once the package is down and the egg is back up, the vehicle gains altitude, and does this beautiful arc, and it’s off again,” he said. “That was delightful.”
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The Growing Buzz For Drones in Business (VIDEO)

In the Kansas City Business Journal’s Weekly Edition, out Friday, the cover story explores how the demand for drones is growing almost as rapidly as the possible uses for the unmanned aircraft.

From farmers to filmmakers to construction companies, businesses are envisioning ways to put unmanned aircraft systems to work. Among the stories: how KC businesses are finding ways to use — and sell — drones; a look at the struggles federal regulators face keeping their rules as current as the technology; and a degree program in UAS at Kansas State University.

The package includes a story about Tony Lauer, a Shawnee resident who has found a way to wed his high-tech hobby with his grass-roots passion, employing his bought and homemade drones to keep a watchful eye on government and developments.

In the video above, Lauer talks about his fleet of drones and their uses.


UAV Enthusiasts: Drone Photography Is Not A Crime

Drone Lawsuit

For several drone photography enthusiasts, their own footage has been their best defense against spurious charges.

David Beesmer was arrested by a New York state trooper on Tuesday and charged with a felony — unlawful surveillance in the second degree — for recording aerial video footage of the Mid Hudson Medical Group building in Ulster, New York, which just opened last Monday.

Beesmer was in the area because he had taken his mother to a doctor’s appointment at the hospital. He posted on Facebook that he wanted to fly his aerial drone in the area because he was “so very proud of this facility and that someone has done something positive with the property that has been abandoned for many years.”

But since Beesmer was reportedly flying his $1,300 drone between 10 and 15 feet from the windows of examination rooms at the medical facility — close enough for patients and medical staff to notice it — his use of the equipment became an issue.


FAA screens ideas about allowing drones for movies


WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration received scores of comments about allowing moviemaking companies to fly drones, and the bulk urged safe rules to avoid midair collisions with passenger planes.

Peter Newfield, a technician and location manager for film and video from Soquel, Calif., said drones would be safer than occupied helicopters while flying with less noise, smaller crews and less fire danger while filming, for example around Monterey Bay.

“It is my recommendation to license the professional radio-controlled aircraft companies that are able to pass FAA guidelines,” Newfield said.

Jerry Gardner of Fort Smith, Ark., said the FAA should make some initial rules, such as setting height, speed and weight limits for drones, and “get this show on the road.”

But Nick McMahon, a commercial helicopter pilot with experience in film and television, said a remote pilot should hold a commercial pilot’s license to ensure they are following FAA regulations, which would be prohibitive for many operators.

“So far, it’s clear that no commercial drone operators are complying with any laws,” McMahon said.

Wednesday was the final day for comments. The FAA hasn’t said how fast it will make a decision, but industry lawyers expect an answer within months.

The moviemaking exception is being considered as the FAA develops comprehensive rules for all drones under a congressional deadline of September 2015.

In setting up six experimental ranges to test how drones fly, the FAA focused on safety issues such as avoiding collisions between drones and planes, and ensuring they land safely if they lose connection to their remote pilots.

Commercial drones attract attention because the industry is expected to grow significantly once rules are adopted. The Aerospace Industries Association said the moviemaking proposal is focused on safe operations with licensed airmen at the controls.

In contrast to the much more prolific and emotional outpouring over cellular service aboard passenger planes, the 71 drone submissions tended to offer detailed comments about how FAA could craft rules – or the dangers that drones represent.

For example, several people suggested specific altitude limits for drones such as 250 to 1,000 feet off the ground. While the moviemakers proposed a 400-foot ceiling, McMahon said he routinely flies lower than that and would be endangered.

Richard Mock, a search-and-rescue pilot, voiced concern about seeing and avoiding drones below 1,000 feet.

“It is difficult enough to see and thus avoid larger aircraft,” Mock said. “When you start mixing very small aircraft into the system it will be virtually impossible to see tiny aircraft during daylight hours.”

Several people suggested that drones broadcast signals so that occupied planes would be aware of where they are flying, but that could be a hurdle for many drones that don’t carry such equipment.

“‘See and avoid’ has been for decades the primary rule in safe operation of flights,” Javier Abalo said. “We need to make sure that ‘see and avoid’ is the No. 1 priority for” drone operators.

But several people were deeply skeptical of allowing drones in the same airspace with passenger planes. While the FAA considered the moviemaker proposal, the National Park Service banned drones June 20 above its properties because of concerns about disturbing park visitors or wildlife.

“Just say ‘no,'” Jeffrey Aryan of Corona, Calif., told the FAA. “There is just too much room for abuse from all sides.”

The seven applicants are independent aerial cinematography companies that sought exemptions with the help of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The companies are: Aerial MOB, Asraeus, Flying-Cam, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, Snaproll Media and Vortex.