Police, Colleges Prominent Among Entities Operating UAVs

 - July 1, 2012, 3:10 AM
The Miami-Dade, Fla., Police Department has developed standard operating procedures for the Honeywell T-Hawk micro air vehicle, which is flown by an operator using a computer.

Compelled by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, the FAA released information in April identifying the public and private entities authorized to operate UAVs in U.S. domestic airspace. While many of those entities received prior publicity in local press reports and elsewhere for their activities, the FAA’s compilation did shed light on the types of organization that are planning to participate when UAVs gain entry to the National Airspace System (NAS) in 2015, as mandated by Congress.

The proposed regulatory framework for introducing small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), possibly weighing up to 55 pounds, into the NAS is awaiting release by the FAA. The agency indicated last year that a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for small UAS would be released in December. A program executive then indicated the target date would be June. Jim Williams, executive manager of the FAA’s UAS integration office, told AIN the proposed rule will likely now be released toward the end of 2012 due to the complexity of the regulation.Williams, interviewed June 5 at the RTCA Symposium, noted that the White House Office of Management and Budget must vet the NPRM once the Department of Transportation releases it.

During the symposium, Williams also spoke to the issue of privacy raised by civil liberties organizations concerned about the surveillance capability of UAVs. While the FAA is empowered to regulate air safety, “we have no purview into the privacy issue whatsoever” and no ability to affect it, he said.

Law enforcement agencies and academic institutions are numerous on the list of public agencies possessing FAA-issued certificates of authorization (CoAs), released by the agency in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The FAA also released a list of private companies awarded special airworthiness certificates (SACs) for both familiar UAVs such as the General Atomics Predator B, AAI Shadow and Honeywell T-Hawk, and lesser known platforms. There were 18 active SACs for various platforms and 41 agencies and institutions with active CoAs, according to the documents posted by the EFF.

The FBI and Customs and Border Protection have CoAs to operate unmanned aircraft, as do police departments in Arlington, Texas; North Little Rock, Ark.; Gadsden, Ala.; Ogden, Utah; and Seattle; the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Office; Orange County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office; Polk County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office; and Miami-Dade Police.

The Miami-Dade department, in response to a public records request by the EFF, said it operates two Honeywell T-Hawk micro air vehicles–one purchased through a U.S. Department of Justice grant, the other leased for $1 from the manufacturer. It provided the EFF with a draft, 12-page standard operating procedures manual used in flying the ducted-fan aircraft. The CoA limits operations to an altitude of 300 feet above ground level.

“The UAVs are tools intended to be deployed to support law enforcement and other emergency department responders at tactical or critical scenes,” the department explained in an email to the EFF, which the organization posted on its website. “The idea is that it can provide an aerial point of view during incidents where human capabilities are impracticable or incapable.” The aviation unit that operates the T-Hawk does not store or retain video or still images captured by the aircraft, and no policy has been formulated on this topic, the department said.

Other law-enforcement agencies around the country are taking notice of the policing benefits of UAVs. “Drones will certainly have a purpose and a reason to be in this region in the next, coming years,” chief David Rohrer of the Fairfax County, Va., Police told WTOP Radio on April 30.

The FAA’s list reveals a number of academic institutions with CoAs to operate unmanned aircraft, including Eastern Gateway Community College, Georgia Tech Research Institute and universities in Alaska, Ohio, Tennessee, Kansas, Colorado, Connecticut, New Mexico, Texas, North Dakota and Virginia. The city of Herington, Kan., plans to establish the Herington Unmanned Flight Facility at its regional airport.

Some of these entities may have a leg up in the FAA’s search for six unmanned aircraft system (UAS) test sites. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law in February, requires the agency to establish a UAS test program within six months. FAA executives hosted a webcast April 10 and explained that test-site proposals will be accepted through a screening information request the agency plans to release on July 20. It is expected that the sites will be selected in December and start operating 180 days thereafter. The operators will be solely responsible for funding and operating the sites.

The same FAA reauthorization legislation sets a deadline for integrating unmanned aircraft in the NAS by October 2015. But military aircraft will begin transiting the NAS some two years earlier, departing U.S. Army airfields to access restricted airspace for training purposes. Viva Austin, the Army’s product director for UAS airspace integration concepts, said designated airspace “corridors” will start to be used late next year or early in 2014 to fly MQ-1C Gray Eagles through military Class D airspace surrounding airfields to nearby test ranges. The launch site will be Fort Hood, outside of Killeen, Texas, followed in order by Fort Riley, Kan.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; Fort Campbell, Ken.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Fort Bliss, Texas.

The Army will monitor Gray Eagles in flight using ground-based sense-and-avoid (GBSAA) radar. With the FAA’s participation, the service developed a prototype GBSAA system at the General Atomics flight-test facility in El Mirage, Calif. That system has been deactivated and testing now has shifted to restricted airspace at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The Army is the lead service for GBSAA within a Department of Defense UAS task force; the Air Force and the Navy are working on airborne sense-and-avoid technology.

GBSAA “started as a near-term effort to look at how we could provide an alternate means of compliance” for maintaining safe separation of unmanned aircraft, said Austin, speaking April 3 at the Army Aviation Association of America conference in Nashville. “Now we’re seeing that it’s really part of the bigger solution. When the airborne technologies are ready, we’ll be part of that final solution.”

All of the U.S. military services, including the Marine Corps, have CoAs from the FAA, according to the list provided to the EFF.