July 6, 2012 at 3:13 PM ET
The U.S. Army announced that it has completed a two-week test of its Ground-Based Sense and Avoid system, which will allow drones and unmanned aircraft to fly more safely in domestic airspace. The system will allow for safer flights with less manpower and oversight, though it doesn't address the concerns citizens might still have regarding UAVs in their neighborhoods.
Drones have been on the fast track at the FAA ever since their latest budget arrived with language suggesting they get moving on legalizing them. Police, national guard, scientists, everyone wants a drone, and while caution is a virtue at the FAA, sometimes things need to be expedited. Late 2015 is the hard limit on having regulations in place, and so the FAA is working with drone makers and operators to set down, for lack of a better term, some ground rules.
Part of those rules is a "sense and avoid" system, with which an unmanned aircraft can detect other craft in the same airspace and make the appropriate adjustments to its flight path. Today, that often means a chase aircraft with a human observer, but low visibility or darkness can put an end to that. Ideally, the craft itself would house instruments capable of scanning the area, but ground-based systems can be more comprehensive and more reliable, though they are less portable.
The GBSAA is a 3-D radar system that tracks every craft in range, calculates the likelihood of conflict, and suggests a course correction if necessary. The Army tested it in a series of "vignettes," in which real aircraft were used to invade the drone's operational space, and they say the new system passed with flying colors.
Viva Austin, product director for the Army's Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration program, described the difficulty of producing anything like a threat to the system:
Air traffic control keeps people separated so well, it was kind of hard to put yourself in a really stressing situation and test those algorithms out really well. It was very safe and we demonstrated that the system and the test bed was really successful.
The only reservation they had with the tests was that the GBSAA would suggest flight paths that would not normally be taken by pilots — for instance, it might pick a safe route that veers north, while a pilot would veer south because it's more towards base, or away from restricted airspace.
If things go well, drones could be flying above a number of US forts as early as March of 2012. This doesn't mean they'll be hovering outside your window, but it is a step in that direction. Privacy and reasonable use by the authorities will be a completely different set of decisions and legislation, though; first they have to be air-legal, then they can be put to use.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.