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Will the FAA Open Civilian Skies to UAVs?

uavsWhile Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have proven their effectiveness in military theaters around the world, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, their use in the United States is currently limited to restricted airspace and certain sections of the Mexican and Canadian borders.

The use of UAVs in American airspace is a contentious issue for amateur pilots and commercial airlines, who fear that opening the door to these vehicles will clog domestic travel lanes and make midair collisions more frequent, as they doubt the “see-and-avoid” capabilities of unmanned craft.

However, despite the controversy, the FAA has decided to begin research using a Boeing ScanEagle UAV, a man-portable, 50-pound fixed-wing aircraft with a wingspan of just ten feet.  FAA will fly the aircraft in unrestricted airspace in New Jersey to determine if there is a practical risk to air travel or pilot safety.

FAA says it may consider authoring a special set of rules for small UAVs like the ScanEagle, which are ostensibly less dangerous to commercial aircraft because of their small size.  The potential uses for these aircraft range from monitoring forest fires, enforcing speed limits on highways, an increased role in border patrol and security operations and even oil pipeline inspections in remote wilderness areas like Alaska.

DoD is already crazy about UAVs.  They’re safer than conventional aircraft, since the pilot never leaves the ground (if they need a pilot at all) and small UAVs are more fuel-efficient and cheaper to repair and replace than piloted aircraft.  You only have to look at the sales of aircraft like General Atomics’ Predator Drone and the speed with which these aircraft have caught on to see that there’s a huge potential civilian and homeland security market for this technology, providing the FAA changes its rules.

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