(Source: The Guardian)
Colonel Robert Becklund knows the exhilaration of flying some of the world’s most powerful, fast and nimble aircraft. For 17 years he was a pilot with the 119th fighter wing of the North Dakota air national guard, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon was his plaything.
He would fly the supersonic jets at Mach-2 speeds, feeling the force of nine Gs bearing down on his chest. On formation flying days, he would hurl the plane almost vertically up into the skies, then roll it in dramatic displays beside other F-16s flying alongside him.
It is a paradox that a pilot who has such extensive experience sitting in the cockpit of one of the most advanced manned aircraft on earth should now find himself at the forefront of its nemesis: the push to take the pilot out of the plane and switch to unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, commonly known as drones. Becklund is executive director of the first official drone test site to function in the US, and as such he has made it his personal business to help find a way to introduce the devices into American civilian life.
As head of the Northern Plains unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test site, based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Becklund oversaw the very first federally approved test flight on 5 May. The launch of a Draganflyer X4ES drone – a small quadcopter designed to carry cameras for aerial photography – may have been a relatively small step for Becklund and his team, what with the flight lasting barely 20 minutes. But, given the nature of the test sites, it might one day come to be seen as a giant leap for aviation.
“We have the ability to shape a new age in aviation,” Becklund said. “I have no doubts about this – unmanned aircraft are absolutely going to change the civilian world. It’s already happening, all around us.”
But despite the excitement around drones as the next chapter in aviation history, there is also growing frustration about the ponderous speed at which the new automated technology is being integrated into the national airspace. Under current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, almost all commercial use of the unmanned planes is strictly prohibited.
On a two-day tour of the Northern Plains test site organised by the North Dakota department of commerce, the coordinator of the site, the Guardian heard aviation experts and UAS pioneers repeatedly express their frustration at the “glacial speeds” at which the FAA is moving towards integrating drones into America’s skies. Becklund said he was so concerned about the slow rate of progress that he feared that the US could jeopardize its technological and commercial leadership in unmanned aerial vehicles.
“I worry that the rest of the world is moving ahead faster than we are,” he said. “We have a lot of interest, the phone is ringing off the hook, companies want to fly their unmanned airplanes, but if a company comes to the test site and wants to know how it can go ahead and commercialise its aircraft, we can’t really tell them. There’s something not quite adding up.”
He added: “It’s going to be a frustratingly long wait for the industry in this country. We are going to have to push to maintain leadership in this area – it’s easy for people to go to Canada.”
Benjamin Trapnell, an expert in unmanned aeronautics at the University of North Dakota, which is a key partner in the UAS test site, said: “The FAA is just rolling its eyes over this – they want to see it all go away. But that’s not going to happen. We’ve got this huge increase in technology, and the question is: can we catch up with it under a bureaucratic system that moves with glacial speeds.”
Congress has set the FAA the task of coming up with rules and standards that would safely allow drone traffic through American skies by September 2015 at the latest. But at the rate things are going, few expect that deadline to be met.
The six drone test sites – the others are in Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia – were set up by the FAA as part of its mission to meet Congress’s mandate. They would act as research arms assisting the FAA to solve a maddeningly difficult riddle: how to unleash the extraordinary potential of drones in US society by allowing them to fly among passenger planes in America’s busy airways, without jeopardizing the country’s unsurpassed record for air safety.
The need for a solution to the riddle appears increasingly urgent with every day that passes, as has been vividly illustrated by a spate of recent incidents. Last week, a Dutch tourist was ordered by a federal judge to pay $3,200 after he crashed his drone into the Grand Prismatic Spring, a famous hot spring in Yellowstone national park, Wyoming. In May, a New York musician was fined for “reckless endangerment” after he crash-landed in a Manhattan sidewalk just feet away from a pedestrian.
As individuals and businesses increasingly embrace drones as they come down in size and cost, the FAA has tried to hold back the tide by sending out cease and desist letters to people caught using the planes without authorization. But such are the attractions of the devices for outlets such as real estate companies, wedding photographers and hobbyists flying drones through fireworks displays that increasingly people are going ahead and using the devices even without FAA approval.
Meanwhile, companies who have done everything they are supposed to do, and are abiding by FAA rules, are hurting because they cannot recoup the investment they have made.
That includes companies like Field of View, an innovative start-up in Grand Forks that has designed a drone package specially geared to the large-scale farmer. It uses state-of-the-art aerial photography to detect plant health, irrigation and development almost to the level of the individual leaf. That could help farmers save thousands of dollars in fertiliser, water and lost crops – as well as helping the environment.
Yet right now Field of View cannot exploit the potential of its product: farmers are not allowed to fly drones over their fields. At least, not in the US. So it does roaring trade instead with Canada, parts of South America, South Africa, the Czech Republic, France, and elsewhere. “A lot of other countries are marching ahead,” said chief executive David Dvorak.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com