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Look Up in the Sky!

Despite safety and privacy concerns, the FAA is set to test drones in New York state and elsewhere

by E.S. Cormac on January 23, 2014



Photo by E.S. Cormac

On Dec. 30, six days after the Federal Aviation Administration announced via press release that “Santa Claus, his elfin crew and the Santa One sleigh” were cleared for takeoff for their “annual round-the-world flight,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta made another announcement: The commercial testing of drones would soon begin at six sites across the United States.

“After a rigorous 10-month election process involving 25 proposals from 25 states, the FAA has chosen six unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research and test site operators across the country,” said an FAA press release issued that same Monday.

The FAA chose six locations in Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and New York. Each test site will evaluate different aspects of commercial drone use. The sites expect to begin operations within six months and continue their work until February 2017, according to the FAA.
Griffiss International Airport in Rome, Oneida County, is tasked with the integration of UAS into congested Northeast airspace, and the testing conducted there will focus on air collision avoidance. Researchers at Griffiss also plan to develop validation procedures for UAS operators according to statements released by the FAA.

“Today I am pleased that the FAA chose Oneida County to be a nationally recognized center for research, development and testing of unmanned aircraft systems,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna of New York’s 22nd District, which includes Griffiss, in a statement released on Dec. 30. “Helping build a high-tech economy in the Mohawk Valley is essential to the future of our economy.”

Hanna, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is a member of the Unmanned Systems Caucus, lobbied to help ensure that the FAA chose Griffiss as one of the locations. Although there is bipartisan opposition to commercial drone use in Washington, D.C., in western New York Hanna received support from Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), along with Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei of Syracuse.

“I have no doubt that with this announcement central and northern New York will become the Silicon Valley of unmanned system advancements,” Schumer said via a statement released on Dec. 30.

“We are extremely excited,” says Oneida County Department of Aviation Deputy Commissioner Chad Lawrence. Oneida County inherited Griffiss when the Department of Defense closed the Air Force base there in 1995 during a round of base closures. According to Lawrence, the 1,700-acre airport has one of the largest runways measuring at almost 12,000 feet. Griffiss once was home to the 416th Bombardment Wing’s B-52 Stratofortress bomber squadron, whose large aircraft necessitated the size of the runway, Lawrence notes.

Not everyone is happy with the FAA decision to begin commercial drone testing. Melanie Trimble, the director of the New York Civil Liberties Capital Region chapter, expressed her concern via an e-mail to Metroland on Jan. 8: “The use of aerial surveillance technology poses serious and novel threats to personal privacy. Any program that employs drone technology must include clear, rigorous and enforceable privacy protections.”

“Right now, the FAA has mandated that each test site has a comprehensive privacy guidelines in place and that those will be publicly available,” says Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Alliance (NUAIR) program manager Andrea Bianchi. The alliance will conduct tests at Griffiss and at Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
NUAIR is an alliance of business and university partners based in central New York. According to the NUAIR website, those partners include Syracuse University, Clarkson University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rochester Institute of Technology, among others. “RIT is our academic lead in this project,” Bianchi says.

Lockhead Martin, Saab Sensis, and SRC, a not-for-profit security company, are some of the NUAIR business partners, according to the same site. The New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing, which operates a squadron of Reaper drones, is also listed as a partner. The General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers were first used in 2007 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This program is strictly a civilian FAA initiative,” says Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs. “We are not involved in the testing. Our personnel are there to only provide expertise in what it is actually like to fly a UAS.”

According to Bianchi, the drones NUAIR plans to test will be smaller and less sophisticated than the larger drones operated by the military. “All the testing, at least initially, is going to start off with the small unmanned aircraft; what’s classified as small is under 55 pounds.”

Despite these assurances, some people are still concerned about the possibility of drones flying overhead. “I think the American people should be skeptical about our government’s promises to respect our privacy,” says Medea Benjamin, an anti-drone activist and author of the book Drone Warfare.

According to Benjamin, recent revelations about National Security Agency surveillance should make people wary of drone use.

“There is also the potential issue of arming the drones with either nonlethal or lethal weapons,” says Benjamin, who adds that the government is already using drones to patrol portions of the United States border with Mexico. “I think it’s a slippery slope. There are a lot of questions that really deserve a much more vigorous national debate then we have had so far.”

According to Bianchi, NUAIR plans to adhere to strict privacy guidelines set in place by not only the FAA but also by a code of conduct for UAS developed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “I can see that there is a big concern as part of this whole process,” she says. “Privacy guidelines are going to be available on each test site’s website. There will be a place for residents and members of the public to comment on privacy policies and other concerns related to the test site.”

Bianchi also states that limitations regarding manned, or normal aircraft still apply to UAS. “Even though it’s a new technology, it still follows all the laws and regulations in place.”

For some people, it’s not privacy, but the reliability of the UAS that is the main concern. “Have you ever driven a remote control car and had to run to keep up with it so that it doesn’t just take off?” asks Joshua Slish of Clifton Park. “These things are still remote control.”

Slish was a UAS operator for his National Guard unit based out of Gloversville, and flew a small UAS similar to the units that NUAIR will soon test. Although he is familiar with the possible benefits of UAS technology, he is skeptical about their practicality. “They’re hard to fly and operate; you spend most your time watching where you are going. I don’t see how they plan to fly these things around buildings.”

According to Slish, UAS technology still needs improvement before many of the proposed plans for drone use is practical. Even larger, more sophisticated versions of UAS are not immune to problems. Slish points out that the 174th Attack Wing crashed a Reaper drone into Lake Ontario. An article in the Airforce Times reported that no injuries occurred in the Nov. 12, 2013, crash. The drone was not armed.

“We are going to be working alongside the FAA and other test sites to develop safety management procedures,” Bianchi says. “That’s one of the biggest missions of the test site. The end-term goal of this whole test site initiative is to eventually integrate unmanned air systems into national airspace. Safety standards need to be developed before this happens.”

Bianchi says until that time UAS will stay within the limits of the test space. “We won’t be flying over people’s houses until those standards are developed.”

Despite their reservations about the project, both Slish and Benjamin see many uses for commercial drones. Benjamin says that the UAS have a potential for use for humanitarian reasons such as search-and-rescue operations or delivering medical supplies. Slish points out that UAS potentially could help agriculture.

“Farmers could save so much money by using these [UAS] instead of hiring crop dusters,” Slish says. “They could help manage livestock. There is a lot of potential for farm use.”

Slish remains skeptical of some corporate plans for their use, however. “I’m not sure about Amazon using them to deliver packages, though. What, are they going to have drones flying all over the place?”

According to Bianchi, these are just some of the uses that NUAIR and its partners see in the future. Bianchi states that commercial drone use is expected to become a multimillion-dollar business within the next 10 to 15 years. “Agriculture is going to be a big benefactor of this technology.

She points out that farms in Japan have been using UAS technology to manage crops since the 1990s. According to Bianchi, drones help to reduce costs on farms by providing a more targeted approach to pesticide and fertilizer applications, which, she points out, has another benefit: “It also reduces the environmental impact of that kind of spraying.”

Having the test site at Griffiss already will benefit the region, says Bianchi. In order to obtain the contract, the FAA required NUAIR to do an economic impact survey. “What we found was the test site could create over 400 new jobs in New York state and lead to a total economic impact of over $100 million,” she says.

According to Lawrence, Oneida County is still struggling from the impact of the 1995 base closure. “It devastated the area.”

“I think it’s going to be a great plus,” he adds. Currently two aircraft maintenance companies operate at Griffiss refurbishing 747s and other large planes. According to Lawrence, the two firms have a combined workforce of about 450 employees.

“We are always looking for opportunities to make this airport go,” he says. “I think that it will bring in a lot of testing and a lot of people for testing. Ultimately, it will bring in equipment and bring in people. We are very excited.”