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Army Presses FAA For Drone Flight Training Rights

Posted by Richard Whittle on

The Army, eager to get Federal Aviation Administration permission to fly unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace near its U.S. bases for training, has issued a new directive on the subject and will apply for an FAA Certificate of Authorization to operate drones near Fort Stewart, Georgia.

“The Army’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) represent emerging technology that requires access to the National Airspace System,” Army Secretary John McHugh says in a Jan. 13 memo accompanying Army Directive 2012-02 (Supplemental Policy for Operations of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System). “The Army intends to use UAS for warfighter training and directed mission support,” McHugh’s memo explains.

The directive was first made public today by the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy News blog.

The day McHugh signed his memo, Col. Patrick Tierney, the Army’s director of aviation, told the Association of the United States Army’s annual aviation symposium that the service’s need for FAA permission to fly in civilian airspace is growing along with its unmanned aircraft fleet. The Army now flies five types of UAS, ranging in size from the hand-thrown, back-packable RQ-11B Raven surveillance UAS to the 3,200-lb. armed MQ-1C Gray Eagle.

The Army has fielded two Quick Reaction Capability units of the Gray Eagle, a larger derivative of the Predator made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of Poway, Calif., with one platoon of four aircraft in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. The Army bought 29 more Gray Eagles in fiscal 2011 and plans to have 13 three-platoon companies of the aircraft in all.

Unlike the Air Force, whose crews usually fly their remotely piloted aircraft from ground control stations in the United States, Army UAS crews deploy with their aircraft, which is one reason the service feels it’s important to win FAA approval for training flights in civilian airspace.

Last year the Army flew a Gray Eagle in civilian airspace around a desert airfield at El Mirage, Calif., to test ground-based sense-and-avoid technology designed to alert UAS operators to other aircraft and prevent collisions. The FAA usually requires a chase plane and a ground observer to watch out for other aircraft when a UAS flies in civilian airspace, and the Army’s COA for the El Mirage flights included stringent restrictions. Its UAS operators were required to fly below 10,000 feet and land when civilian aircraft neared their area of operations. The tests went well but the Army has moved the sense and avoid system to Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where no FAA approval is required and “we can expand it a little more,” Army spokeswoman Sofia Bledsoe said.

The FAA and the Pentagon have been struggling for years to find a way to accommodate the military’s need for airspace for UAS training without endangering civilian airliners and general aviation. The defense authorization bill President Obama signed in December gave the FAA 180 days to carve out six civilian airspace “bubbles” for military UAS flights.

“God bless the FAA, their job is to protect our population,” Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, the Army’s chief aircraft buyer, told the AUSA aviation symposium. “We can’t afford to get this wrong,” Crosby added. “We can’t do this in an environment where we’re going to have a failure and cause somebody loss of life or loss of limb because we hurried to get it done. The FAA, God bless ’em, this is a first for them. They’re being as helpful and supportive as they can, but they’re also being cautious, and I don’t think we can be critical of them for that.”

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