The use of unmanned drones is growing rapidly, and the government is trying to keep oversight up to pace. While much of the attention has been focused on the privacy implications of drones, safety is becoming a bigger concern as 10,000 unmanned aircraft ware expected to hit the U.S. skies by 2017.
With 10,000 drones expected to be roaming U.S. skies within the next five years, the Transportation Department's internal watchdog has opened an investigation into whether the government's air traffic cop can keep the increasingly crowded skies safe.
The department's inspector general began its inquiry last week with little fanfare, seeking to determine whether the Federal Aviation Administration has the capacity to monitor and regulate traffic to avoid mid-air collisions between traditional passenger aircraft and the unmanned aerial vehicles.
"While the capabilities of unmanned aircraft have significantly improved, they have a limited ability to detect, sense, and avoid other air traffic," the inspector general said in its little-notice announcement of its inquiry.
The review is a sign of how quickly Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have moved from the overseas battlefields of the war on terror to the domestic U.S. skies, where law enforcement and researchers increasingly want to use drones to simplify or improve their work.
Law enforcement particularly is intrigued by the possiblility of using battery-powered craft that cost less than $100,000 each instead of traditional police helicopters that run in the millions even before fuel costs.
The explosive growth has already raised privacy concerns, such as in Alameda County, California, where the sheriff's department's plan to buy drones raised the hackles of privacy and civil liberty activists. Less attention, however, has been given to the safety implications.
The FAA predicts there will be 10,000 active drones in the U.S. within five years, but the agency so far has approved such operations "only on a limited, case-by-case basis, due in part to the safety risks" of integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System, the inspector general noted.
Congress has ordered the FAA to develop a plan by Sept. 2015 to integrate UAS into the national airspace. The inspector general investigators said they will evaluate FAA's "progress and challenges" dealing with UAS, and how well the agency is addressing safety concerns.
The IG defined a UAS as "a pilotless aircraft, satellite or radio link, and ground control station where an operator controls the movements of the aircraft. UAS aircraft range in size from those with a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737 to smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane. UAS can serve diverse purposes, such as conducting military operations, enhancing border security, and monitoring forest fires."
Unmanned drones have been used in military theaters for some time, but demand for their use on domestic soil is increasing, especially from law enforcement agencies.
The Washington Guardian reported earlier that the Pentagon has sometimes failed to reign in rampant spending on UAS.
The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, is the agency within the Transportation Department that oversees, organizes and regulates the nation's airspace.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS, are unmanned drones controlled by a remote pilot in a separate location via radio or satellite. The first became widely known during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Inspector General, or IG, is an independent watchdog office within each government agency charged with finding waste, fraud or abuse.
The National Airspace System, or NAS, is a government name for US airspace and pattern of aircraft currently flying.