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The Pentagon and FAA finally seem to be moving toward resolution of one of the toughest policy issues facing unmanned aerial vehicles: where and when can they fly in civil airspace.
Last week’s collision between a helicopter and small plane over New York raises the stakes and reinforces the need for stringent UAV safety protocols, said several experts attending the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference here in Washington. They did not want to be identified. One expert said that last week’s crash “reinforces the fear” that an accident might occur between a UAV and a plane. The expert added that it would take only one collision between a UAV and a passenger plane “to set back things completely.”
Right now UAVs are largely useless in the United States and Europe because of the continuing impasse between understandably safety-minded civil air authorities and those who want to operate UAVs in civil air space. How important is it for the FAA and friends to come up with a solution to this problem? “Absolutely essential,” Gene Fisher, Northrop Grumman’s VP strike and surveillance systems, said when I asked him about the problem during a briefing at the AUVSI 2009 conference here in Washington.
Right now, as the Department of Homeland Security knows all too well, UAVs cannot fly in most civil airspace. When a Global Hawk or other assets are deployed to the border they must either operate in restricted airspace or have a manned aircraft fly with them. UAVs are easy to fly in a military zone. Aside from keeping clear of friendly aircraft, few restrictions hem unmanned vehicles in as they gather information or fire weapons.