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New U.S. air traffic control system neglected UAV use

September 25, 2014  By The Associated Press

Sept. 25, 2014, Washington, D.C. - Designers of the ambitious U.S. air traffic control system of the future neglected to take drones into account, raising questions about whether it can handle the escalating demand for the unmanned aircraft and predicted congestion in the sky.

"We didn't understand the magnitude to which (drones) would be an
oncoming tidal wave, something that must be dealt with, and quickly,"
said Ed Bolton, the Federal Aviation Administration's assistant
administrator for NextGen, as the program is called.

Congress passed legislation creating
NextGen in 2003, and directed the agency to accommodate all types of
aircraft, including drones.

The program, which is not expected to be
completed for at least another decade, is replacing radar and radio
communications, technologies rooted in the early 20th century, with
satellite-based navigation and digital communications.

The FAA has spent more than $5 billion on
the complex program and is nearly finished installing hardware and
software for several key systems. But the further it progresses, the
more difficult it becomes to make changes.


Government and industry officials have
long maintained that drones must meet the same rules that apply to
manned aircraft if they are to share the sky. That is changing, however,
said Chris Stephenson, who represents the National Air Traffic
Controllers Association on several U.S. and international unmanned
aircraft committees.

"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," he

Michael Whitaker, the FAA's deputy
administrator, acknowledged that drones "weren't really part of the
equation when you go back to the origin of NextGen."

The NextGen plans for the next five years
do not address how drones will fit into a system designed for planes
with pilots on board, but the agency will have to consider whether to do
that, Whitaker told a recent meeting of the NextGen Institute, a
non-profit association sponsored by the FAA so that industry can assist
with research.

Most of the initial demand to fly
unmanned aircraft came from the departments of Defence and Homeland
Security, which wanted to test military drones or use them to monitor
U.S. borders.

Later, interest began to build around
potential uses for smaller drones, especially by police departments, but
also for those wanting to spray crops, monitor pipelines and inspect
offshore oil platforms. These drones can weigh anywhere from a few
pounds to several hundred.

More recently, commercial demand has
soared — from wedding videographers and real estate agents to Amazon and
Google, eyeing potential package deliveries.

The FAA bans commercial
drone operations with a few, limited exceptions. That ban, however, is
undermined almost daily by frustrated small drone operators.

Bolton, also addressing the institute,
said the NextGen office is working closely with a drone research team at
the FAA's technical centre in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

FAA officials are under pressure from
Congress and industry to loosen restrictions on smaller drones. The
agency is expected to propose safety rules in November for businesses
that want to operate them.

Smaller drones are less an issue for
NextGen because the FAA is expected to limit their altitudes to less
than 400 feet (120 metres). Air traffic controllers generally don't
separate aircraft at such low altitudes, except near airports.

But there is also concern about potential
traffic and collisions with low-flying smaller drones. NASA researchers
are working with the FAA and industry to develop an air traffic control
system for aircraft flying at 500 feet (150 metres) or lower. There is
no such system today except around airports.

Medium to large drones that are
eventually expected fly in "Class A" airspace — over 18,000 feet, (5,500
metres) where they must be able to avoid collisions with other aircraft
— are more of a problem for NextGen.

They will be controlled by
a ground pilot, who will be able to see where the drone is on a
computer screen and can communicate with controllers. But there won't be
a pilot on board who can look out and adjust course to avoid a

There are other differences as well.

Pilots who fly in Class A airspace file
flight plans identifying their routes. But some larger drones are
expected to stay aloft at high altitudes for days or weeks at a time,
and their flight plans will be much more complex.

ERAM, a NextGen computer system that
controllers use to guide high-altitude air traffic, won't be able to
handle such voluminous flight plans and will have to be adjusted,
aviation experts said. ERAM is already over budget and years overdue.


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