Monday, November 04, 2013

Drones, Air Safety, and the FAA

On May 10, 2012, in the South Korean city of Incheon, an engineer from the Austrian company Schiebel was demonstrating to South Korean military personnel his firm's S-100 camcopter, a 150-kilogram remotely piloted drone aircraft that could assist South Korean patrol operations at the country's border with North Korea.  In the midst of the camcopter's flight, it suddenly veered out of control and crashed into the control van where the engineer was sitting, setting the van on fire.  Two Koreans were injured and the Austrian engineer was killed.  Speculation immediately arose that the loss of control stemmed from intentional jamming of GPS (Global Positioning System) frequencies by North Korea, which has caused numerous navigational problems in the area in the past. 

Drones, a term that includes helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and anything else that flies without a human on board, have played a major role in warfare for at least a decade.  But prices are falling and capabilities are rising to the extent that commercial and private interests are now wanting to use drones for a wide variety of applications, ranging from surveillance in domestic law enforcement to cargo transport.  Federal Express has even expressed an interest in using pilotless aircraft instead of manned cargo planes, for example.  But in an article in the November issue of Scientific American, two "drone-spoofers" from the University of Texas at Austin raise serious questions about the safety and legal aspects of using drones these ways.

Around the same time that the S-100 crashed in South Korea, UT researchers Kyle Wesson and Todd Humphreys took command of an $80,000 drone at the White Sands Missile Range as part of a demonstration to show how easy it is to distract such aircraft by sending out false GPS signals.  Because GPS signals are so feeble in most locations, it takes relatively little radio-frequency power to overwhelm the real signals from satellites with cleverly devised fake ones.  Once you have taken over the GPS receiver of a drone that relies on GPS for navigation (as many semi-autonomous drones do), you can lead it like a dog on a leash.  Wesson and Humphreys carried their spoof just far enough to show that they did indeed control the craft, and then a backup manual operator took control and landed it safely. 

This demonstration shows that while drones have gained greatly in technical sophistication and capabilities, including the ability to fly completely without manual control from a human operator, the regulatory environment has not kept pace.  The Federal Aviation Administration is charged with the responsibility of making U. S. airspace safe, first of all, then hospitable to air travel for both humans and cargo.  The outstandingly good safety record of air travel in this country is partly due to the FAA's conservatism with regard to changes in the basic way it does things.  

On a flight I took recently from New Jersey to Texas, the captain put the cockpit's air-traffic control channel on one of the audio channels at every seat, and I spent most of the flight eavesdropping as he checked in with a total of six or eight way-stations of the air along our route.  It was reassuring in a way, but at the same time I was impressed by the fact that such conversations would be completely familiar to a pilot who last flew in 1959.  The FAA follows the principle of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and they change their basic procedures about air-traffic control very slowly, if at all.  A major change from radar-based control to satellite-based control involving GPS is in the works, but the present system will remain in place for nearly a decade into the future.

Wesson and Humphreys worry that in the shift to the new system, drones will be left to fall between two stools.  If the new rules for air traffic control make no provision for drones, the whole field could be crippled by the absent-mindedness or hostility of legislators and regulators.  Already, several states have adopted anti-drone-surveillance laws arising from privacy concerns.  These laws would not directly impact the transportation aspects of drone use, but could severely handicap legitimate surveillance with drones.  If the FAA requires that licensed unmanned aircraft always be within visual sight of the operator, that would make drones unusable for most of the promising applications their developers hope to find.  But on the other hand, if it is really as easy as it seems for someone to take control of a GPS-equipped drone, there has to be some way to prevent that from happening if the public safety is to be protected from large, heavy machines falling out of the sky.

The FAA traces its history back to the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which charged the U. S. Department of Commerce with taking actions to ensure the safety of the then-novel field of air travel.  While Congress's delegation of authority to quasi-autonomous agencies has been abused in recent years, the FAA has by and large been a poster child for how a federal agency should behave, keeping safety uppermost in mind while restraining itself from issuing industry-crippling regulations.  It has accomplished this feat by embodying the best features of conservatism and by basing decisions on sound technical arguments as well as on politics.  It remains to be seen whether the FAA can manage to incorporate drones in its next major upgrade of the way it keeps people and things safe in the skies.

We are entering an era in which artificial intelligence and remote control systems are bidding fair to replace human transportation operators in many fields:  railroads, automobiles, and now aircraft.  It will be interesting to see whether those in charge of the FAA's safety regulations can adapt them to accommodate beneficial uses of remotely-controlled and autonomous vehicles without putting the public at undue risk of accidents.  How the FAA handles drones will be a test case for a number of other similar problems that will arise in the near future.

Sources:  The November 2013 issue of Scientific American carried the article "Hacking Drones" by UT Austin researchers Kyle Wesson and Todd Humphreys on pp. 54-59.  I referred to an article on the fatal South Korean drone accident at and a brief summary of the history of air traffic control in USA Today at, as well as the Wikipedia article on the Federal Aviation Administration. 

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