Talk to the Drone
Every now and again, I have to silently cheer for the FAA's plodding, frustratingly contorted way of doing its business. This week brings news that the agency isn't going along with the Air Force's insistence that it needs yet another restricted area, this one in North Dakota, in which to train drone operators. Here's the full story.
The Air Force is in a twist because it has shipped six expensive Predators to North Dakota and when it summarily proposed to carve out a 1500-square mile restricted area, (2 percent of the state) the FAA said not so fast. The agency said this airspace business needs to be done "deliberatively." Anyone who's tried to husband a certification project through the FAA's regulatory maze will immediately recognize this as code speak for "find me a bush."
So as Brigadier General Leon Rice scurries off in search of the right bush in a field of millions, I have to wonder why the Air Force has to slice up North Dakota to do this work. Couldn't they have shipped the drones to Nevada, where the Air Force already has a billion or so cubic miles of restricted airspace? Maybe they need to do cold weather training. So how about Elemendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, where there's another billion cubic miles. The list of existing restricted areas is long; the quarantined airspace large. As if to show some flexibility, the Air Force allowed as how the new restricted airspace could be vertically stratified to allow civil use when the drones weren't active. Damn decent of them, don't you think?
The FAA is right to resist this airspace grab. This sort of thing goes on all the time in name of national security and to oppose it is to appear…well, unpatriotic. But I'd argue that the right way to look at this is to see past the patriotism smoke screen and consider what's practical, what's fair and what's right.
In that spirit, I propose a compromise. If, for some unknown reason, the Air Force desperately needs to surveil northern tier wheat patches, let's have a new class of airspace called MOA/DRONE. Put it on the chart, just like that, MOA/DRONE. Then, place the UAVs under positive control and equip them with VHF comm so the operator can talk directly to any aircraft sharing the MOA on a common advisory frequency. That's how MOAs work now. Pilots who want to enter them can do so on an own-risk basis, or they can circumnavigate the area. There's always risk in entering MOAs and if you don't like that, don't fly there.
The reality is that UAVs are becoming an ever larger part of the U.S. airspace picture. This is likely to grow exponentially over the next decade. Sooner or later, they are going to have to be integrated into the way the civil world does business. The services have to get over the knee-jerk reaction to carve out restricted airspace every time a robot wants to go flying and we in the civil world have to get over the irrational fear of sharing airspace with these things. If we don't, there won't be any airspace left for civil use.
Yes, there will be accidents. Drones will occasionally get away—as one did near Washington recently—and they'll probably crash in spectacular ways. But it has always been and will always be thus with flying machines. We can nanny ourselves to a froth over this stuff to the point that the only response will be to cower in a dark closet with your butt bumped against the wall charger for the robotic vacuum cleaner.