Drones Raise Safety Issues as Service Roles Multiply

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been operating drones above the border with Mexico since 2004. It got its first MQ-9 Predator B in 2005.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been operating drones above the border with Mexico since 2004. It got its first MQ-9 Predator B in 2005. (John Miller - AP)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

From the comfort of a control center at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California, pilot Mark Pestana will gun the throttle of his unmanned aircraft, pull back on the stick and gently guide his plane into the sky next month.

But he will not be using the high-tech modified Predator B drone to seek out and kill insurgents in Iraq or Taliban in Afghanistan.

Instead, his mission will be to comb the western United States for forest fires and to relay infrared images and photographs of the blazes to firefighters on the ground.

Routinely seen and heard in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan, drones are being flown in growing numbers in the United States on a variety of missions, including probing hurricanes and spotting illegal immigrants crossing the border.

The increasing use of unmanned vehicles, which range in size from those that can fit in your hand to twin-engine jets, has met resistance from federal regulators struggling to safely incorporate the devices into the nation's airspace. The drones have also raised fundamental questions about the nature of flight and what it means to be a pilot.

The Federal Aviation Administration is allowing unmanned vehicles to fly on a case-by-case basis only after regulators have been convinced that the aircraft will be operated safely and be confined to specific segments of airspace.

This year, regulators expect to grant more than 130 waivers to government agencies to use unmanned flying machines, up from 64 two years ago. The FAA has granted private companies nine certificates to operate drones in the United States this year -- a total of 13 have been granted since 2005 -- so they can test their products, regulators said.

Among the heaviest users of drones in civil airspace are the military, intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security, according to FAA officials. The missions usually involve training runs or flying through the airspace on the way to war zones, FAA officials said.

"There may be an agency in the government that hasn't asked us" to use a drone, said Marion C. Blakey, the FAA administrator. "But I would be hard pressed to think of which one hasn't. We are trying very hard to be very flexible. . . . But it is a very complex issue."

Government agencies love larger drones, such as the 10,000-pound Predator B, because they often are packed with sophisticated cameras and sensors and can loiter in the sky for hours without refueling. Smaller drones have the benefit of being very maneuverable and can get close to hazardous material spills or other situations that would endanger flight crews.

NASA and the U.S. Forest Service have been flying a Predator this summer to monitor forest fires. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are adding three to their squadron by early next year to help patrol the border with Canada and to observe the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. The agency has been operating drones above the border with Mexico since 2004. It got its first Predator B, which is built by General Atomics, in 2005.

U.S. weather scientists plan in the coming months to routinely dispatch 30-pound drones into hurricanes and tropical storms to gather temperature, wind speed and precipitation data. The flights will penetrate areas too dangerous for manned planes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which sent a drone into a tropical storm in 2005.

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