Our nation’s aviation system is a complex and valuable part of the U.S. economy. As a commercial-rated pilot and airplane owner, I
use our National Airspace System (NAS) on a regular
basis. I’m also a consultant to the unmanned aircraft
industry. So, I have a personal interest in a future that
includes safe, unmanned aircraft operations.
To me, it is fascinating how valuable unmanned
aircraft systems (UASs) can and will be to the economy
... and they use our airspace to generate that value. Yet,
they also can be quite a challenge to our safety and
security. While mid-air collisions certainly come to
mind, UASs also can be used for nefarious purposes.
Spying and delivering dangerous packages that can hurt
American citizens are possibilities as well.
Let’s take a look at some of the main security risks,
challenges and value that UASs offer.
Security risks and challenges:
■ ■ UASs can deliver dangerous packages
■ ■ UASs can fly sensors inexpensively and can be used
for spying and/or violating privacy
■ ■ UASs can pose a safety threat to manned aircraft
Value and solutions:
■ ■ FAA is working to deliver a safe manned/unmanned
NAS environment to minimize some of these risks
■ ■ UASs can enhance security and safety when
properly used by law enforcement and can be used in
industries such as agriculture
■ ■ In many respects, the challenges posed by UASs
are no different than the challenges posed by the
introduction of other new technologies
One of the most disturbing potential risks is the
ability of a UAS to deliver dangerous packages such as
explosives and/or chemicals and disease agents. Just
imagine what a 50-pound bomb could do at a national
event like the Super Bowl or the 4th of July celebration
on the Mall in our nation’s capital. UASs are not easy to
detect, and the smaller ones easily could be carried in
the trunk of a car, hand assembled and launched, then
programmed to fly to a specific point.
Technically, this would be easy to do, and the effect
could be devastating. This idea is not new, however.
Humans have had unmanned aircraft almost since
the invention of airplanes, and Germany used the
unmanned V- 1 buzz bomb to attack Britain in World
Another challenge is the ability of unmanned aircraft
to fly miniature sensors that can be used for spying. For
issues like privacy and spying, it is not the platform that
delivers this capability, but the sensors and electronics.
Why is it such a big issue now? It’s because sensors
rapidly have become so inexpensive, lightweight and
small that even the tiniest UAS can deliver exceptional
capability. This point came home to me when I was
introduced to a quad helicopter costing about $300 at a
local toy store. It had a radar altimeter onboard which,
in the 1970s, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on
military jets. Now this device costs only a fraction of
the $300 cost of the quad helo. Amazing! A large variety
of sensors exist that can detect heat, visual, vibration,
electromagnetic fields and more.
The third major risk is safety — the potential for
collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft.
This topic has made the national news several times
recently, as unmanned aircraft have come dangerously
close to commercial aircraft at some of our biggest
airports. This challenge has increased dramatically
A Benefit and Security
Challenge at our
BY STAN VANDERWERF