Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Despite FAA ban, US spy aircraft patrols northern border

Even though the Federal Aviation Administration has banned the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the Department of Homeland Security currently has a US spy aircraft patrolling the northern border of New York for the month of June.

“U.S. border officials are testing an unmanned surveillance aircraft to judge whether the drones can be used more widely along the U.S.-Canadian border, including at a crossing where cigarette and drug smuggling are a continuing problem,” the Associated Press reported last week.

The AP added, “The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used the remote-controlled Predator B on the Mexican border for several years. The agency began flying the first Predator on the northern border out of Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota in February and now is testing the aircraft along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.”

“A Predator B Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) has been temporarily based at Fort Drum since early June in an experiment by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office,” Watertown, New York’s Newswatch 50 reports. “The Department of Homeland Security is using the extensive restricted air space over Fort Drum to test whether the drone could be a good fit along this stretch of the northern border.”

The AP noted that the “drone has been carrying out surveillance missions for American and Canadian law enforcement agencies during its test run in upstate New York.”

A weapon manufacturer’s press release claims, “Since 2004, CBP unmanned aircraft have flown over 3,000 hours, directly contributing to 4,766 arrests and the seizure of 22,823 pounds of marijuana in support of the Department of Homeland Security’s border security mission.”

While unmanned aircraft systems can be armed, the one flying over upstate New York has no weapons, according to John Stanton, director of CPB’s Office of Air and Marine.

According to the US Customs and Border Protection, “The MQ-9 Predator B Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) augments CBP Air and Marine assets supporting ground interdiction agents on the Southwest Border. In January 2009, UAS operations began on the Northern Border. CBP Air and Marine is engaged in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) mission to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States.”

FAA virtually grounded all airborne law enforcement unmanned aircraft

Three years ago, after sales for UAS began skyrocketing, the FAA “virtually grounded all airborne law enforcement unmanned aircraft,” Kenneth J. Soloskly reported for the law enforcement website Officer.com.

The FAA cites serious technical issues as the reason for the ban on unmanned aerial law enforcement aircraft. In the military theater, the US military controls the airspace completely and there is no civilian aircraft to compete with. In the United States, there is a fairly busy mix of military, general aviation and airline traffic. The FAA feels that the technology is not at a point in which unmanned aerial vehicles can operate in this environment. Some law enforcement agencies disagree strongly. So strongly in fact, that they are fighting the FAA in court to lift the ban. Quoted in Government Technology aviation lawyer Tim Adelman remarks, “The FAA is essentially trying to scare people into not using these devices or to require stricter authorization. But that policy exceeds their authority granted by Congress.” Mr. Adelman is currently lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration on behalf of certain law enforcement bodies - so far with limited success - to drop its legal veto.

At Govtech.com, Paul Weinberg adds, “Three years later and the refusal to allow U.S. police forces such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to take advantage of small and lightweight unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for aerial surveillance of potential crime scenes still rankles.”

The DHS is apparently sidestepping the ban because the use is termed a test, and the UAS have been flown in restricted air spaces.

Weinberg noted that “the FAA is maintaining its prohibition of the UAS for general use by public bodies except for testing and temporary emergencies such as brush fires — at least until all of its safety concerns are ironed out according to spokesperson Les Dorr.”

He told Digital Communities that every so often a police force will determine on its own that it can ignore the FAA ban and start using UAS for investigations. “Some law enforcement departments feel they can do this for whatever reason — either because they are not familiar with the process or they don’t feel they have to go through the process [of FAA authorization],” he explained.


But until serious technical deficiencies in the UAS are solved, they will be kept out of U.S. skies, stated Les Dorr at the FAA.

“There is nothing to our knowledge and no UAS technology at this time that would allow unmanned aircraft to meet the same ’see and avoid’ [regulatory technical] standard that manned aircraft have to operate under,” he told Digital Communities.

“Pilots must maintain vigilance during flight to avoid other pilots within their air space by constantly scanning for other aircraft,” Dorr added.