Military Drones in U.S. Skies Could Pave Way for Thousands of Civilian Ones

Military bringing home unmanned drones from Iraq, Afghanistan to U.S. airspace.

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Drones are not going away. Their reported ability to save money and lives over battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan make them a favored tool among military and intelligence circles.

Domestic institutions such as law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have also seen the appeal, as well as private companies. The FAA estimates roughly 7,500 commercial drones could be in use within five years, all of them small craft.

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The military is now looking to get more access to U.S. skies as it trains and prepares for new missions abroad, which experts say will pave the way for more commercial and private drones, causing some anxiety at home.

So is there a near future where a private company like FedEx can use drones to ship cargo?

"No, probably not," says Lance King, a retired Air Force colonel and Pentagon expert on what the military calls unmanned aerial systems.

However, the technology to do so is practically already here, he adds. The military is working with the FAA to change policies that limit how drones can fly in the nation's airspace, which King says could eventually extend to the civilian realm.

"Airplanes today are really almost all flown by autopilot. To be able to turn that autopilot on and off from a remote location is really just a dial link. It's not rocket science," he says.

Thousands of drones are coming home as the U.S. winds down wars abroad. The military counts more than 11,300 UAS of various sizes among its arsenal.

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King and other members of the Pentagon's UAS task force have been working to figure out what drones could fly safely in the nation's skies. Congress has mandated the FAA develop a plan to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

"The reality is we need to be able to train with those systems, with those forces, and we can't always do that within restricted airspace," he says.

Public institutions such as the military must get special permission, called a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), to operate outside of restricted airspace. FAA regulations mandate any such aircraft flying in the National Air Space must be able to "see and avoid other aircraft," which usually falls to the person or people piloting the aircraft from within. This gets tricky for an aircraft flying remotely.

"The biggest stumbling block is the word 'see,'" says King. If the military wanted to fly a UAS to a training ground outside of the restricted airspace over a military base, for example, these regulations mandate there must either be a line of spotters on the ground who are able to visually track the craft, or a manned chase plane to follow it.

The military is developing both ground- and airborne-based "sense and avoid" technology that the FAA could accept as a reasonable substitution for the "see rule."

The FAA declined to comment on what specifics they are looking for in a potential change to this regulation. It has commissioned six test ranges to study the integration of drones into the national airspace, and will finalize selection of these sites later this year.

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There are 327 COAs as of February of this year, and the FAA continues to work with government agencies to make the process less cumbersome.

"We still have a long way to go, we still have a lot of policy that needs to be effective to do that smoothly," says King. "We're starting to have that discussion and undertake those challenges on both the FAA side and on ours."

That could begin to take effect as early as next year.

"There are some really interesting and promising technologies out there," says Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association International union. "We're surely not against it."

"It sounds a little odd for someone who represents airline pilots, but we embrace a lot of these technologies that are safety specific in their focus," he says. "It's just a matter of making sure these technologies are fully vetted and they don't try to ramrod these things into service until there is a very, very definitive safety case made for them that demonstrates they can operate every bit as safely as we do now."