Saturday, July 26, 2014

Drones Gone Wild- Why More Air Disasters May Be On the Way If The FAA Keeps Dragging Butt

The Youtube video of a wayward drone scoping out people below on the observation deck of the Seattle Space Needle has commanded lots of attention, as it should.  In fact, this drone - shown in an ABC segment last night - was sent on its mission by some goober in a nearby hotel - who released it from his window. This stunt followed an earlier one a month or so ago when a drone flew high over the wedding of the daughter of a congress critter (who had a hand in fashioning the 2012 bill allowing millions of these things to take to our skies by next year)  In both cases the unleashed drones were in violation of laws prohibiting such drone flight until late next year.

The existence of the relevant bill was first reported on Feb. 4, 2012 in The Wall Street Journal  ('U.S. Skies Could See More Drones', p. A7)and it came as a shocker of sorts. First, because it disclosed yet another federal agency (FAA) held hostage to the corporatist-industrial complex, now attempting to find new avenues for drone production since the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending (well the first has officially ended, the second nearly may not until 2024). And second, because it discloses how secretive this corporate-benefiting information is.

Medea Benjamin made reference to the spectacle of congressional corporate compliance and being bought out by the drone makers, as she said:

"They’ve been able to write the drone legislation and get their lackeys in Congress to push it through and get the president to sign it.”

In other words, the congressional rats and whores placed the bottom line of corporations over citizen welfare. But this is what we expect in a corporatocracy.  In the case of the FAA bill, worth some $63 billion (and nearly four years in the lobbying and rewriting), U.S. skies would be inundated with tens of thousands of unmanned drones sharing airspace with commercial planes - and recall these are already at the beck and call of overworked air traffic controllers, as gauged by nearly 300 near misses per year. Imagine if they now had to contend with thousands of these unmanned drones flying who knows where?
Well, we no longer have to imagine! We now know how bad it can be! Records and data are now available showing dozens of near misses of commercial aircraft with drones, near major airports - highlighted in the FAA map below:

Photo: FAA Map showing locations of near collisions with drones at major airports.
These incidents, exposed in an investigation by the Washington Post,  include one in which a pilot descending into LaGuardia observed a drone with a 10 -15 foot wingspan above lower Manhattan. In another LA incident, two separate pilots reported a drone "the size of a trash can" perilously close by.  The FAA was not able to pursue or identify the offenders because either "radar data was not available" or "the operators could not be identified." (Denver Post, 'Drone Close Calls', June 25th, p. 17A)   The Post notes that (p. 22A):

"The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian aircraft and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace.."

Beyond that, the Post reports that "in 15 cases the past two years, drones flew dangerously close to airports or passenger aircraft" (including the incidents noted above in New York and LA.) The accumulating incidents so spooked one commercial pilot (Greg Cromer) that he actually wrote a letter to the FAA opposing the whole insane idea of opening U.S. airspace to these mechanical beasties, writing (ibid.):

 "I can see no way to prevent a collision with something that could be as small as a bird or a plane or kitchen appliance."

In addition, "the NASA database confirms that dangerous brushes between drones and passenger aircraft are more common than the FAA acknowledges." 

Is the FAA already co-opted and bought out? We hope to hell not!  According to the database, there've been 50 incidents since 2005, including potential disasters. Meanwhile, Chris Stephenson, an operations coordinator with the National Air Traffic Controllers' Association, described the pending integration of drones into national airspace as "a tsunami headed for the front porch". Other drone advocates (e.g. General Dynamics' Krista Ochs) are concerned with how the industry will be set back if and when the first major crashes with commercial airlines occur.  As she put it (ibid.):

"If we have a major catastrophe that involves some type of midair collision it could set us back years."

She has a point!

This past week saw three air disasters racked up, one in Ukraine (the shoot down of MH-17 with 298 onboard), one in Taiwan, and one over Africa. Nearly 500 lives lost in a skein of disasters that even has the most savvy frequent fliers biting nails. Steve Kornacki, on his show this morning, observed how the three plane disasters has him asking why (after taking 13 flights and surviving) he'd ever fly again. An aviation guest he had on said he needs to stop his "catastrophic thinking" and give control back to his rational brain.

But that will be hard for any rationalist knowing that because of a worthless, bought out congress commercial aircraft will be under constant threat when millions of unmanned drones with very few regulations, are released.

The inherent problems,  as noted by the Post report, include:

A limited ability to detect and avoid trouble. Cameras and high-tech sensors on a drone cannot fully replace a pilot’s eyes and ears and nose in the cockpit. Most remotely controlled planes are not equipped with radar or anti-collision systems designed to prevent midair disasters.
Pilot error. Despite popular perceptions, flying a drone is much trickier than playing a video game. The Air Force licenses its drone pilots and trains them constantly, but mistakes are still common, particularly during landings. In four cases over a three-year period, Air Force pilots committed errors so egregious that they were investigated for suspected dereliction of duty.
Persistent mechanical defects. Some common drone models were designed without backup safety features and rushed to war without the benefit of years of testing. Many accidents were triggered by basic electrical malfunctions; others were caused by bad weather. Military personnel blamed some mishaps on inexplicable problems. The crews of two doomed Predators that crashed in 2008 and 2009 told investigators that their respective planes had been “possessed” and plagued by “demons.”

Unreliable communications links. Drones are dependent on wireless transmissions to relay commands and navigational information, usually via satellite. Those connections can be fragile. Records show that links were disrupted or lost in more than a quarter of the worst crashes.
The FAA was to have issued regulations controlling drone flight in commercial airspace - but so far they are dragging their bought out asses. According to a disturbing report in The Denver Post ('Flying Blind', July 6, p. 1D)
" agency official reportedly has warned that the entire rulemaking process could take up to a decade."
A decade! That means the rules governing unmanned drone flight won't be available until 7 or so years AFTER the drones take to the skies!   The Post article goes on:
"Although rule-making for small, unmanned devices could begin by the end of the year, even the Inspector General of the Transportation Department has concluded 'the FAA will not meet the September 2015 deadline for safe drone integration and it is uncertain when it will be achieved,"
Then the solution ought to be obvious to our illustrious congress critters: the integration of drone flight into commercial airspace needs to be postponed! No unmanned drones going up until such time the FAA has its house in order and proper regulations published and mandated.
According to the piece, the FAA "disputes that it is creeping along" and even put out a pamphlet, 'Busting Myths' purporting to show how on target they are and calling out "myths and misconceptions".  One myth, according to the FAA, is that it is "lagging behind other countries in approving commercial drones."
But to show how Neoliberal logic has infected even federal agencies, the FAA  - as the Post article notes - "never explicitly denies it is lagging behind other countries in approving rules."
The Post goes on: "Because it can't.  Australia, Japan and even Britain has moved on with their own regulations".   But wait, the FAA has a built in excuse:
"The comparison is flawed, because the U.S. has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world" and "developing rules is a very complex task".
Okay, fair enough. Then delay the integration of drone craft until you have the rules in place!
Do not be pressured by the drone makers or their congressional whores! Do what is in the interests of the citizens for once!
Steve Kornacki may well worry about three airline crashes in a week - but what if that turns out to be 30 incidents a month by September 2015? That could happened if the FAA allows drones to run wild in our commercial airspace before it has solid regulations in place.
It is time for government to act in the interest of we the people for once, and not the corporations who are only interested in making profits.

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