Entries in Drones (7)


Popularity of Drones Raises Safety Concerns

Stocktrek Images/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- It’s not just the government that is buying drones.

For years, remote controlled aircraft, some of which are toys, have been on the market. But the remote aircraft available today are far from toys. For roughly $700, you can purchase what is known as The Phantom at a hobby store. It’s a four-rotor drone that can carry a small camera, fly at approximately 22 miles per hour and climb to an altitude of nearly 1,000 feet.

However, flying such drones above 400 feet and within three miles of an airport violates federal guidelines, possibly even the law. Additionally, using drones for business is forbidden.

The Federal Aviation Administration is working on new regulations for operating drones.

Drone operating restrictions entered the spotlight when, on Monday, something happened that has never happened before: Just five miles from John F. Kennedy airport in New York, a jumbo jet operated by Alitalia was on its final approach -- one of the most critical times during a flight -- when the pilot spotted something odd. “Kennedy tower, just for your information,” the pilot told the control tower, according to a recording posted on “We just saw a little drone below us.”

The Alitalia pilot said that while approaching the airport at an altitude of roughly 1,500 feet, a small, black, four-rotor craft came within 200 feet of his Boeing 777 jet.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now on the case asking for the public’s help to find the culprit.

Monday’s incident over JFK worries pilots.

“A couple of pounds hitting an airplane going 200, 250 miles per hour,” said Steve Ganyard, a consultant with ABC News. “If it hits the wrong place, like coming through the cockpit, hits the glass, it can hit the pilot or the co-pilot. It could hit an engine, take out an engine.”

For more than a decade, the U.S. military has been using drones to spy, even hunt and kill terrorists around the world. Both the Army and the Navy have their own versions, and now police departments are using small hand-launched drones to look for suspects, or missing children.


Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Domestic Drones One Step Closer to Becoming Reality

Artist's rendering. Stocktrek Images/Thinstock(NEW YORK) -- The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it is seeking proposals from states, universities and other organizations for six sites where unmanned aircraft systems will be tested -- a major step for integrating domestic drones into the U.S. airspace system.

“Our focus is on maintaining and improving the safety and efficiency of the world’s largest aviation system,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement Thursday. “This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies.”

The FAA ensured that the test sites would be required to adhere to privacy standards during all of their research and testing.

“Each site operator and its team members will be required to operate in accordance with federal, state and other laws regarding the protection of an individual’s right to privacy,” the FAA said in a statement.

While the FAA is responsible for ensuring the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace, questions loomed at a House hearing Friday over which agency would be responsible for handling the related privacy issues.

“It’s unknown at this point,” Gerald Dillingham, director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the Government Accountability Office, said at a Science, Space and Technology House subcommittee Friday. “From our perspective, that’s one of the big obstacles to integration -- that is public acceptance, public education, public concern about how their data will be used.”

“American public are just frightened, frankly, about the use of UAS to possibly have invasions of their privacy and invasions of their civil rights and I’m extremely interested in making sure that we protect those privacy issues and civil rights issues,” Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight for the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said.

“We have to at least figure out who the go-to person is in the administration so that it doesn’t fall through the cracks,” Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., ranking member of the subcommittee, said.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 required the FAA to establish test sites for domestic drones by the end of 2012, a deadline which the agency missed as it assessed privacy concerns, as well as the full integration of unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace by September 2015, which the FAA views as a starting point.

“Our approach is a phased approach and we’re very cognizant that the FAA Act of 2012 called for safe integration by 2015. We view that as a beginning,” Karlin Toner, director of the Joint Program Development Office at the FAA, said. “We’re taking a phased in approach. In 2015 we’ll have integration beginning but as we move towards the next gen system there will be new capabilities that make this an even more efficient integration for more varieties of aircraft.”

Reps. Tom Poe, R-Texas, and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced legislation Thursday that would establish guidelines for who can use drones and for what purposes. The proposed legislation would also ban unmanned aircraft systems containing firearms in the U.S.

“As we enter this uncharted world of drone technology, Congress must be proactive and establish boundaries for drone use that safeguard the constitutional rights of Americans,” Poe said in a statement. ”Individuals are rightfully concerned that these new eyes in the sky may threaten their privacy. It is the obligation of Congress to ensure that this does not happen. Just because Big Brother can look into someone’s backyard doesn’t mean it should. Technology may change, but the Constitution does not.”

“Whether we like it or not, for better or for worse, this technology is here, and it’s not going away,” Maffei said at the hearing. “We must develop the necessary framework to handle UAS emerging safely and securely. We must also ensure the protection of individual rights and personal privacy in the air and on the ground.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Is a Military Drone Base Coming to Your Hometown?

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Death-dealing drones buzzing above may be a constant worry for militants in far-flung lands, but now more of America’s aerial assassins and their spying compatriots could be coming to your backyard -- just for testing and training, according to the Department of Defense.

The military has identified 110 potential bases for drone operations at military installations in 39 states, from Georgia to California, according to a new Defense Department report dated April 2012 and published online late last week by the Federation of American Scientists. The U.S. bases could support all kinds of drones, from the deadly, missile-capable Predators to the next-generation surveillance Global Hawks.

Drone testing and operator training are already done in the U.S., but the report noted that the “strong demand” from the military’s various branches for expanded access to domestic airspace, which is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, has “quickly exceeded the current airspace available for these activities.” The report says that under current policy, the military has to obtain temporary permission to operate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) outside its own restricted airspace.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee said in a defense budget bill that the government needs to speed up the process in which drones are integrated into the national airspace.

“Without the ability to operate freely and routinely in the NAS [National Airspace System], UAS development and training -- and ultimately operational capabilities -- will be severely impacted,” the committee said in its report.

The Defense Department report’s public unveiling follows the publication of a list of dozens of “current” drone bases early last week by the anti-secrecy website public intelligence.

The U.S. military currently has 6,316 drones of various types, according to the report, and plans to add another 2,076 by 2017.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Audit Finds Problems with DHS Drone Program Management

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not have an adequate plan for running the fleet of drones the agency uses on the southern and northern borders, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General.

The agency, which includes the Border Patrol, has been using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) since 2004 to patrol remote areas of the border.

The review by the Inspector General’s office found that CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, which operates the nine unarmed Predator drones, did not effectively manage the resources they have, according to the report released Monday.  Each unarmed Predator system costs about $18 million.

“CBP procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans to do the following: Achieve the desired level of operation; Acquire sufficient funding to provide necessary operations, maintenance, and equipment; and Coordinate and support stakeholder needs,” the report said.

The drones are used for a wide array of border enforcement operations, including looking for drug tunnels and interdicting suspected drug smuggling boats, and have also been used for reconnaissance after natural disasters such as floods. Although the program provides unique capabilities to CBP, the program needs better oversight, the review found.

“CBP had not adequately planned resources needed to support its current unmanned aircraft inventory. Although CBP developed plans to use the unmanned aircraft’s capabilities in its Office of Air and Marine mission, its Concept of Operations planning document did not adequately address processes,” the review said.

The audit found that lack of qualified staff and other factors reduced the number of hours CBP was actually able to fly the drones, which the Inspector General noted should have been about 10,600 hours to meet minimum mission requirements.

“Resource shortfalls of qualified staff and equipment coupled with restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, weather, host airfields, and others have resulted in CBP scheduling just 7,336 flight hours for its seven unmanned aircraft and limited actual flight hours to 3,909 hours,” the report noted.

“CBP has not adequately planned to fund unmanned aircraft-related equipment. The procurement funding category includes aircraft and related equipment, such as ground control stations, ground support equipment, cameras, and navigation systems,” the report said. “This approach has resulted in insufficient equipment to perform UAS missions.”

“CBP does not have an adequate number of ground control stations to ensure safe operations,” the report said, on the finding that only 3 of 4 bases where the Predators fly from, National Air Security Operations Centers, did not have a mobile backup ground control station as required. The review by the Inspector General said only one of the operations centers had a waiver to operate without the mobile ground station.

“Unfortunately, this report clearly shows that CBP is not managing its unmanned aircraft program effectively. The agency is spending money without adequate or proper planning, resulting in expensive aircraft spending most of the time idle on the ground,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The inspector general has recommended that no additional Predators be purchased until reforms can be implemented.

In a letter in response to the IG’s findings, CBP said they concurred with four recommendations made by the inspector general to improve the program.

“CBP’s Unmanned Aircraft System program provides command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to support personnel and capabilities on the ground.  CBP concurred with the recommendations in the Inspector General’s report and is committed to continuing to improve the UAS program,” CBP spokesman Michael Friel said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Huge New Hydrogen-Powered Spy Drone Takes Test Flight

Ryan McVay/Thinkstock(EWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.) -- A new unmanned surveillance drone that can stay aloft for four days at a time and has a wingspan bigger than a 757 successfully completed its first test flight over California's Mojave Desert, though it sustained minor damage on landing.

Boeing's Phantom Eye drone, which is powered by liquid hydrogen, flew for less than half an hour at 4,000 feet before touching down on a dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base near Bakersfield. The landing gear dug into the ground on landing, causing minor damage.

Most surveillance drones currently in use in the ongoing U.S. drone war against al Qaeda and the Taliban can stay in the air for a maximum of 40 hours without refueling. The Phantom Eye's unique liquid hydrogen propulsion system is meant to keep the spy plane aloft for up to four days at altitudes of 65,000 feet.

"This flight puts Boeing on a path to accomplish another aerospace first," said Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works. Davis said the Phantom Eye would provide greater amounts of "persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance" over broader swathes of land.

The Phantom Eye has two 150-horsepower engines, can carry 450 pounds of surveillance gear, and has a wingspan of 150 feet, 25 feet more than the Boeing 757. The Phantom Eye was unveiled in 2010.

"The team is now analyzing data from the mission and preparing for our next flight," said Phantom Eye program manager Drew Mallow in a statement. "When we fly the demonstrator again, we will enter higher and more demanding envelopes of high-altitude flight."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Air Force Shelves $3B Worth of Brand New Drones

Stocktrek Images/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Far from spying on terrorists, more than a dozen high-tech surveillance drones, which together cost the U.S. government more than $3 billion, could soon be sitting in a storage facility gathering dust after top Air Force officials admitted this week the birds still are not as good as the half-century-old spy planes they were designed to replace.

Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz appeared with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley before a Senate committee Tuesday where the two defended the service's decision to stop acquisition of the Global Hawk Block 30 drones and to shelve the 18 Block 30 unmanned drones the Air Force already has, claiming it will save the Pentagon $2.5 billion. In joint written testimony, Schwartz and Donley said the Block 30s cost too much and would require expensive upgrades to match the current version of the Cold War era U-2 spy plane's technical capabilities.

"This was a choice [where] we had an asset that can do the mission as it's currently specified and could do it overall at much less cost," Schwartz told lawmakers during the hearing. "Sustaining the U-2 was a better bet."

The Block 30 Global Hawks, developed by defense contracting giant Northrop Grumman, are designed for capturing images and detecting electronic signals over extremely long distances. Other variations of the Global Hawk, including the Block 20 that specializes in communications technology and the Block 40 that sports a long-range radar system for advanced target detection, will continue to be used by the Air Force, Schwartz said. Each bird, regardless of type, is estimated to cost around $176 million.

The entire program has suffered from a series of costly delays and the program price tag has risen so steadily -- from an estimated $5.3 billion in 2001 to $13.6 billion in 2010 -- that as of March last year, the Department of Defense had been required to notify Congress three times about the ballooning cost.

The Block 30s in particular were the subject of a scathing internal Defense Department report last May, which claimed that in operational testing in 2010, the drones failed to provide adequate coverage of a target area more than half of the time they were in the air. The report said then that the drone was "not operationally suitable." A representative for Northrop Grumman later told ABC News the company was aware of the issues brought up in the report and said the company had worked with the Air Force to solve most of them.

Despite the internal report, an Air Force spokesperson told ABC News in June 2011 that some Block 30s had already been used in real-world operations where they "did not immediately perform at [their] full capacity."

Around the same time as that admission, Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter wrote a letter to Congress describing the program's faults, but essentially saying the U.S. military was stuck with it.

"The continuation of the program is essential to national security... [and] there are no alternatives to the program, which will provide acceptable capability to meet the joint military requirement at less cost," the letter said.

Schwartz, who read a portion of the letter by lawmakers during the Senate hearing this week, said that conditions had changed since Carter's letter and budget constraints made the U-2 a better choice.

The U-2 spy plane is one of the nation's longest-running weapons programs, the first plane having taken off back in 1955 and made its name by providing crucial intelligence about the Soviet missile build-up in Cuba for the CIA during the Cold War. The planes have been regularly upgraded since.

Winslow Wheeler, an acquisitions watchdog at the Washington, D.C. thinktank Center for Defense Information, said the costly Block 30s sitting on the sidelines are a waste of billions that could've been easily avoided.

"They could've had a side-by-side comparison years ago to see if [the Global Hawk] could compete with the U-2," Wheeler told ABC News on Friday. "But they went through the typical technological assumption that this is a step forward, that this will be better and cheaper... [except] it's both more expensive and not as good."

Representatives for Northrop Grumman declined to comment to ABC News for this report, except to point to a statement posted on the company's website that notes the company's "disappointment" in the Air Force's decision to drop the Block 30s.

"Global Hawk is the modern solution to providing surveillance. It provides long duration persistent surveillance, and collects information using multiple sensors on the platform," the statement says. "In contrast, the aging U-2 program, first introduced in the 1950s, places pilots in danger, has limited flight duration, and provides limited sensor capacity. Extending the U-2's service life also represents additional investment requirements for that program."

Wheeler said that Northrop Grumman is likely to push hard to get the Block 30s back in the military's arsenal, something Schwartz left plenty of room for in his testimony.

"We will put the platforms into recoverable storage," he said. "We're not talking about breaking the birds up. We want to be able to have access to them and as circumstances change, perhaps there will be a time when they come out of storage."

In the meantime, Schwartz said he was confident the military will continue to use the other variations of the Global Hawk to the best of their ability.

"We're not giving up on the Global Hawk by any means," he said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Former Intel Chief Questions Obama Strategy in War on Terror

ODNI(WASHINGTON) -- Former intelligence chief Dennis Blair said in an interview Thursday that the terror threat from al Qaeda is a "narrow problem" and questioned the amount of money spent to capture or kill a small number of people.

Blair's critical comments on Obama administration policy were the harshest yet from the former Director of National Intelligence, who was pushed out of his post by President Obama in May 2010 after just 16 months on the job.

Blair, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, estimated there were 4,000 al Qaeda members around the globe, with much of a yearly intelligence budget of $80 billion devoted to catching them.

"That's $20 million for every one of these 4,000 people," said Blair. "The objective is to disrupt and destroy al Qaeda...You think, wow, $20 million is a lot, is that proportionate?"

Blair noted that in the past decade terrorists have killed fewer than 20 Americans inside U.S. borders, most of them in a single attack at Fort Hood Texas in late 2009. He contrasted the terror body count with deaths from car accidents and street crime, which killed more than one million Americans in the same time frame.

"What is it that justifies this amount of money on this narrow problem versus the other ways we have to protect American lives?" asked Blair. "I think that's sort of the question we have to think ourselves through here at the 10th year anniversary [of the 9/11 attacks]."

Said Blair, "I think we need to reexamine what our fundamental goals are. I think by concentrating only on al Qaeda itself we get ourselves in this numbers game...and I don't think that we can kill al Qaeda members and end this threat from jihadist terrorism."

Blair also said he felt the unmanned CIA drone program, in which terrorists are targeted by missiles in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, was counterproductive. The former Navy admiral said that the drone strikes are more of a nuisance to al Qaeda than a threat, and that they harm the relationship between Pakistan and the United States.

"We're alienating the countries concerned because we are treating the countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us," said Blair. "We are threatening the prospects of long-term reform."

He suggested giving Pakistan more say in picking targets. "We should offer the Pakistanis to put two hands on the trigger," said Blair. "That would make our job in Afghanistan more difficult for a while but it would make it a lot easier over the long term."

Pakistan has come under serious criticism since the successful Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden for allegedly sheltering terrorists and tipping off militants to upcoming U.S. attacks. Bin Laden was able to live in Abbottabad, Pakistan for years -- virtually a stone's throw from a major military compound -- without interference by Pakistani officials. When the U.S. forces raided his compound and killed the terror mastermind, the raid was conducted without Pakistani cooperation for fear someone would warn bin Laden ahead of time.

After the raid, CIA director Leon Panetta confronted Pakistani officials with photographic evidence that they had allegedly tipped off Islamic militants in advance of other U.S. raids.

The Director of National Intelligence is designated as the principal intelligence provider to the White House and the chief of 16 different federal intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the National Security Agency. Blair, who was forced to resign from his post and was replaced by James Clapper, said in Aspen that the White House had chosen to side with the CIA over him in an internal power struggle.

"They sided with the CIA in ways that were public enough that it undercut my position," said Blair.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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