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Unmanned Drones in U.S. Airspace? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

[1]File under “OMG! WTF?”

We took our eyes off the BP oil cam just long enough to see this headline : “Feds Under Pressure to Open U.S. Skies to Drones [2].”

The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to issue flying rights for a range of pilotless planes to carry out civilian and law—enforcement functions but has been hesitant to act. Officials are worried that they might plow into airliners, cargo planes and corporate jets that zoom around at high altitudes, or helicopters and hot air balloons that fly as low as a few hundred feet off the ground.

Really? Something might go wrong?

[1]. . . these pilotless aircraft come in a variety of sizes. Some are as big as a small airliner, others the size of a backpack. The tiniest are small enough to fly through a house window.

Cool. Maybe BP could use drones to shoo away those pesky reporters [3] and photographers cluttering up BP’s beaches and wetlands along the Gulf Coast.

One major concern is the prospect of lost communication between unmanned aircraft and the operators who remotely control them. Another is a lack of firm separation of aircraft at lower altitudes, away from major cities and airports. Planes entering these areas are not required to have collision warning systems or even transponders. Simply being able to see another plane and take action is the chief means of preventing accidents. . . .

The National Transportation Safety Board held a forum in 2008 on safety concerns associated with pilotless aircraft after a Predator crashed in Arizona. The board concluded the ground operator remotely controlling the plane had inadvertently cut off the plane’s fuel. . . .

The obvious risks have not deterred the civilian demand for pilotless planes. Tornado researchers want to send them into storms to gather data. Energy companies want to use them to monitor pipelines. State police hope to send them up to capture images of speeding cars’ license plates. Local police envision using them to track fleeing suspects. . . .

“There is a tremendous pressure and need to fly unmanned aircraft in (civilian) airspace,” Hank Krakowski, FAA’s head of air traffic operations, told European aviation officials recently. “We are having constant conversations and discussions, particularly with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security . . .”

Something about this is not comforting. What could it be?

Is it just us, or does this not feel like a logical extension of what “airport security” has become, along with extraordinary renditions and the torture that the U.S. “doesn’t do” at Guantànamo? Welcome to The Homeland.

“I think industry and some of the operators are frustrated that we’re not moving fast enough, but safety is first,” Krakowski said in an interview. “This isn’t Afghanistan. This isn’t Iraq. This is a part of the world that has a lot of light airplanes flying around, a lot of business jets.”

So it’s not a part of the world with higher standards of law and justice, but just more crowded airspace? Is that the distinction?

Homeland Security wants to expand their use along the borders of Mexico and Canada, and along coastlines for spotting smugglers of drugs and illegal aliens. The Coast Guard wants to use them for search and rescue.

Texas officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, have been leaning on the FAA to approve requests to use unmanned aircraft along the Texas-Mexico border. . . . Other lawmakers want an overall plan to speed up use of the planes beyond the border.

[2]Okay, enough snarking around. Let’s see: even with a Democrat in the White House who avowedly believes in competent government [4], the United States cannot or will not properly monitor offshore oil drilling [5] to ensure that it’s done correctly, and when hell breaks loose the U.S. government and the geniuses who promised nothing would go wrong cannot stop the volcano of oil [6]; the U.S. cannot or will not summon the will to develop alternative energy sources, even though electric automobiles have been feasible for 100 years; cannot or will not pass comprehensive health care reform that covers all American citizens; cannot or will not end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after years, years, years . . . and cannot or will not pass legislation to rein in the abuses on Wall Street (little surprise there); but:

A bill approved by the Senate gives FAA a year to come up with a plan; a House version extends the deadline until Sept. 30, 2013, but directs the transportation secretary to give unmanned aircraft permission to fly before the plan is complete, if that can be done safely.

Well, why couldn’t it? There’s a technical solution to every problem, isn’t there?

Maybe it doesn’t matter which party wins the White House, really. Some things never change. And some things get worse just when you thought they were going to get better.

Back to the BP oil cam to cheer up . . .

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