Defense bill calls for domestic UAS test sites

The 2012 defense bill calls for six pilot test sites for domestic unmanned aircraft systems, a measure lauded by some and cautioned by others.

The defense bill appropriates at least $1 billion to pay for various UAS activities, including funding procurement and/or testing and development for the RQ-11, MQ-1, MQ-9, RQ-7 and RQ-4 UAS, and also for DOD UAS common development, unmanned combat air vehicles, tactical unmanned aircraft and endurance unmanned aircraft.

Under provisions in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, six new pilot test sites for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will be established by the Federal Aviation Administration. The Defense Department and FAA will use the test sites to integrate UAS into national airspace use for a variety of different applications, rather than the current functions essentially limited to military use overseas or in restricted U.S. airspace.

The bill provides for a five-year program in which test sites will be used for the FAA to coordinate with DOD to determine how to safely operate UAS in shared national airspace. The test program will explore uses for the aircraft outside traditional military applications, and also for enhanced military operations.

In the domestic setting, UAS might be used for law enforcement, such as crime investigation and traffic applications; agricultural uses, including treating crops with pesticides; or monitoring utilities including pipelines, proponents of the measure said. UAS are already being used domestically for applications in border patrol and disaster relief, according to media reports.

The measure has support from some industry organizations and also members of Congress.

“The creation of these test sites will mark the first step in what will undoubtedly be a long process eventually leading to a common-day occurrence – manned and unmanned aircraft flying safely and seamlessly together in the national airspace,” Peter Beale, chairman of the board at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement. “I applaud Congress’ foresight on the important role UAS can play for our economy and public safety, and I encourage the FAA to expeditiously set up these test sites with the input from the unmanned systems community.”

The test sites have yet to be designated, but the language in the bill orders that potential sites “take into consideration geographic and climatic diversity…and ground infrastructure and research needs,” and are selected under consultation between DOD and NASA.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) also supports the legislation and is pushing for North Dakota to be a regional UAS command center. Hoeven coordinated with Congress to insert the bill’s language about geography and climate in consideration of test site locations, according to his website.

Critics of the measure fear the implications the UAS may have on privacy. A December 2011 report from the American Civil Liberties Union calls for regulation that ensures civilian rights to privacy are upheld and warns against the potential dangers, whether to civil liberties or flight safety.

“Just as the FAA is carefully evaluating the safety implications of drones, so too should we be evaluating the privacy implications of this new technology,” the ACLU report states. “UAVs are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power, like all government power, needs to be subject to checks and balances.”

The report also includes the ACLU’s recommendations for domestic UAS use.