Since the 1990s unmanned aerial systems, or drones, have operated on a limited basis within U.S. domestic airspace–the National Airspace System (NAS). The main user of drones in the NAS were public agencies, such as the military and border patrol. This is now rapidly changing, as a host of new users enter the fray; the technology’s cost has fallen to make it affordable for a range of commercial activities–from monitoring forest fires, spraying crops, to selling real estate.
This is invariably putting enormous stress on the NAS, as it becomes increasingly complex and hybrid. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created the “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office” to facilitate the integration of drones within U.S. skies. The FAA is charged with developing regulations, policy, procedures, and training to support the safe and efficient use of drone operations in the NAS, while simultaneously addressing privacy and national security concerns.
Currently, drones are granted access to U.S. airspace through the issuance of a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to public operators and “special airworthiness certificates” in the “experimental” category of civil applicants. This ad-hoc approach will change to an integrated system of rules and procedures. To that end, the newly released roadmap is the first attempt to the build the basis for a transformation in the NAS from “UAS accommodation” to “UAS integration.” This is in pursuant of the Congressional FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This required integration by September of 2015: a target that will not likely be reached to the extent that lawmakers had originally envisaged.
According to the FAA’s (2011) “Destination 2025” this will involve a switch in the NAS towards a “Next Generation Transportation System”, or “NextGen”. In terms of research priorities, the FAA is keen to develop “Sense and Avoid” algorithms for collision avoidance. This will require future drones to possess the autonomy to re-route their flight paths without human intervention.
The “NextGen” of air traffic control, then, is increasingly reliant upon the drones themselves, and the sophisticated machines that support them. It will be difficult, impossible even, to track and direct each and every drone once they become fully integrated into the NAS. A kind of “Skynet” will be needed to take the place of human operators. Of course, air traffic control is already very much an automated system. But the sheer scale of unmanned aerial vehicles waiting to take to the skies will only push this automation to new heights–removing humans from the decision-making “loop”.
So…what is needed is an alpha version of Skynet…(but one that can never rebel, of course).
The full FAA report can be found here.