Saturday, September 27, 2014

Another FAA Snafu: New Air Traffic Control System Didn't Plan For Drones

Even as we learn of a 36-year old air traffic controller in Chicago who went nuts - pouring gasoline all over the ATC consoles and computers and setting them alight - one wonders how much sooner he would have lost it if he had to track 3,000 drones plus aircraft.   This comes to mind as we learn (Denver Post, Sept. 25, p. 12 A, 'FAA Didn't Have Drones On Its Planning Radar') that the FAA dropped the ball when its "ambitious air traffic control system of the future" was put onstream.  According to the article:

"Designers of the 'NextGen', the air traffic control system of the future neglected to take drones into account, raising questions of whether it can handle the escalating demand for unmanned aircraft and predicted congestion in the sky."

This despite the fact congress passed legislation creating NextGen back in 2003 directing the FAA to accommodate all types of aircraft including drones. The new system  is designed to replace radar and radio communications rooted in 20th century technology and ramp it up to the 21st century by instead using satellite-based navigation and digital communications. Because of the significant changes it's not expected to be ready for a decade though the FAA has plowed $5 billion into it - with nearly all the complex software and hardware already installed.

Let's back up and recall most of the initial demand to fly drones came from the Dept. of Defense and Homeland Security. But then, prompted by drone manufacturers who will lose much of their market in the Middle East, commercial and other uses were pushed. No surprise then that potential drone use was primed for: police departments, crop spraying, monitoring of oil pipelines, and now also commercial proposals, i.e. for wedding videographers, real estate agents to show prime properties, and even Amazon deliveries and Google imagery. Projections now call for millions of drone plying the skies by 2020.  But can this NextGen air traffic control system handle them? Doubtful.

The situation has led Chris Stephenson, who represents the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to say (ibid.):

"It's becoming painfully apparent that in order to get drones in there, there is going to have to be a fair amount of accommodation, at least in the beginning."

What sort of accommodation is he speaking of? Given the FAA deputy administrator Michael Whitaker has 'fessed up that "drones weren't really part of the equation when you go back to the origin of NextGen" , it must mean that drone operators will be given much wider latitude to operate in our skies - with less accountability than manned aircraft. It means the standards for safety won't apply to the millions of drones unleashed so that the current level of near collision - as shown on this map:
Photo: FAA Map showing locations of near collisions with drones at major airports.

Will radically increase. 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 D. Post noted 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.."

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

The ominous portents for future flyers were quite evident in this passage of the current Denver Post piece:

"FAA officials are under pressure from congress to loosen restrictions on smaller drones - and the agency is expected to propose safety rules in November for businesses that operate them"

How rigorous are these rules likely to be? I wouldn't bet on much other than the businesses have to be monitoring their flight paths "as best they can". Question: For a commercial jet taking off at about 200mph would collision with a small drone of 5-10 lbs. pose a problem? I will leave readers to figure that one out for themselves while noting the FAA is the same agency that caved to congress in terms of allowing this drone insanity in the first place.

Activist Medea Benjamin made reference to the spectacle of congressional corporate compliance and being bought out by the drone makers, as she said some months ago:
"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.

Meanwhile,  drone advocates like General Dynamics' Krista Ochs have expressed concern with how the industry will be set back if and when the first major crashes with commercial airlines occur.  As she put it (DPost, June 25th, p. 17A.):

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

Something the NextGen planners might want to consider as well the FAA currently working with NASA researchers to develop an air traffic control system to handle all aircraft flying at 500 feet altitude or less. There are no such systems today except around airports, perhaps explaining why the guy in Chicago went bonkers from the stress of tracking and why more might if tens of thousands of drones take to the skies.

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