BETHALTO — The head of St. Louis Regional Airport says commercial, unmanned aircraft flight is an industry on the verge of takeoff, and once it does, the sky is the limit.
“There haven’t been any drones coming into this airport, but I have been plugged in with some of my military colleagues and other airport managers at other places. I will say that the drone thing is here to stay. It’s a mark of our times,” Manager David Miller said.
Federal regulations are being established for small unmanned aircraft systems, frequently called drones. Except in military and law enforcement uses they are now restricted to a 400-foot height. The rules of implementations aren’t expected before late next year, but already concerns are being expressed regarding privacy and safety.
“I’m not so sure that fear is well founded,” Miller said, regarding the safety element. “Drones are not flown by some type of automated flight plan. They are flown by human beings. Granted they are in a remote facility somewhere, but they are at the controls of that aircraft. If one does have problems, there is still opportunity to steer a malfunctioning craft into an unpopulated area.”
Miller said he is confident the Federal Aviation Administration, “which has dictatorial powers over anything in the air,” will come up with a complete set of FARs — Federal Aviation Regulations — that cover drones and enforces safety.
Still, that won’t stop every problem.
“Working the law of averages, just like there are people-to-people collisions with airplanes, there is going to be a collision with a people airplane and a drone,” Miller said. “People might say, ‘Let’s do away with the drones.’ But that’s not going to happen. They are here to stay.”
While full commercial use must await regulations, there are already industries thinking ahead. Amazon is one of the leaders, announcing last year plans to proceed with commercial delivery of its shipped goods via drone. It is now part of a coalition that is trying to speed action in Washington, D.C.
“It’s farfetched, I don’t know how they would work it out, but somebody out there is thinking in those terms,” Miller said. “Everything started with somebody’s wild idea somewhere.”
The infrastructure is already in place for drone use, and Miller offered a personalized scenario:
“Let’s say I get a phone call that says a drone is en route to St. Louis Regional Airport and is going to land at 10:45. There is absolutely nothing we have to do to modify or change anything here at the airport. It comes in on some kind of flight plan (either an instrument flight plan or a visual flight plan), so the tower would know to look out for something coming in. It lands on Runway 2-9 and taxies off to a taxiway. Somebody, in a cubicle somewhere, is watching all this on a flat screen TV and controlling the aircraft.”
Hobbyists have been flying unmanned vehicles for decades, but modern-day drones are another story.
“We’re talking about drones that have long-range capability. Some of the drones that have been used in Asia were actually flown there by controllers here in the United States. And that included air-to-air refueling,” which Miller called very sophisticated.
“I’ve got considerable number of hours flying a tanker-type aircraft, and I wonder what I would think, as a pilot, knowing that the aircraft coming up to connect to my boom has nobody on board,” he said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles can range from several inches to dozens of feet in size. There will also be a time, he says, where people will climb aboard drones piloted from the ground.
“I’ve not heard rumblings yet about trying to carry people. I think ultimately that day may come, I’m not so sure I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I think it’s inevitable,” he said.
Meanwhile, there is much ground to tread in flight research, and Miller has colleagues in North Dakota who are conducting some of that study.
“University of North Dakota is one of the few places where they have interfaced the simulators for pilot training with the simulators for air traffic control. In my opinion that’s a major accomplishment,” he said.
He noted that Grand Forks (N.D.) Air Fork Base and “lots and lots of wide open spaces” makes the location ideal for such research.
The FAA announced recently that the Virginia Tech’s unmanned aircraft system test site program is now operational, making it the last of six such sites nationwide to be declared operational.
UAS operations are to occur at test areas in Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland. Research in the three states will eventually include agricultural spray equipment testing, development of aeronautical procedures for integration of UAS flights in a towered airspace and developing training and operational procedures for aeronautical surveys of agriculture.
There is no holding back the drone industry, and efforts to do so by the FAA have shown the need for regulation. The FAA’s attempt to fine a commercial drone operator for a 2011 flight were thrown out on March 6 by a National Transportation Safety Board judge who found that the FAA had not followed the proper rulemaking procedures and therefore effectively had no UAV regulations.
The agency has said that it expects that five years after it unveils a regulatory framework for unmanned aircraft systems weighing 55 pounds or less, there will be 7,500 such devices in the air.
Meanwhile, some states have enacted legislation of their own.
This summer, legislation proposed by state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, to put additional limits on the use of drones by law enforcement became law. The measure expands on the privacy protections of the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act, which Biss sponsored last year.
“It’s important we continue to develop and refine our regulations on these types of technologies as they advance,” Biss said in a statement. “This new law expands on our approach of balancing the basic right to privacy with the potential to use technological advances to improve public safety.”
Last year’s drone law, which was one of the first of its kind, prohibits police from using an unmanned aerial vehicle without a search warrant except in certain clearly defined emergency situations. The new law, which was introduced as Senate Bill 2937, clarifies that in the absence of a warrant, individuals and businesses cannot be obligated to give information collected by privately owned drones over to the authorities.
Drones are best known for their military capabilities, but law enforcement agencies, corporations and private individuals have begun purchasing smaller, unarmed versions for a variety of purposes.
The new Illinois law allows law enforcement to acquire information from a privately owned drone without a warrant if necessary to prevent a terrorist attack, imminent harm to a person or the escape of a suspect; to collect images of a crime scene or traffic accident scene; or to locate a missing person. It also states that law enforcement agencies may use their own drones to survey damage and help coordinate relief efforts in a natural disaster or public health emergency.