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Errant drone near DC almost met by fighter jets

By Associated Press
Friday, September 10, 2010 13:23 EDT
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Military almost scrambled fighter jets for errant drone near DC, renewing air safety worries

The U.S. military almost launched fighter jets and discussed a possible shoot-down when an errant Navy drone briefly veered into restricted airspace near the nation’s capital last month, a senior military official said Thursday.

The incident underscores safety concerns with unmanned aircraft as defense officials campaign to use them more often during natural disasters and for homeland security.

Navy Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., head of Northern Command, said Thursday that the August mishap could hamper the Pentagon’s push to have the Federal Aviation Administration ease procedures for drone use by the military in domestic skies.

“It certainly doesn’t help our case any time there’s a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that wanders around a little bit outside of its controlled airspace,” said Winnefeld, who also is commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. “We realize the responsibility on our part to include the technical capability and proper procedures. We’d just like to be able to get at it quicker.”

Currently drones are used for patrols and surveillance along the nation’s southern border, and sometimes at the northern border. But the military wants to use them more during hurricanes and other disasters to evaluate damage or target rescue efforts.

In related news, the Wall Street Journal reports, “U.S. and Mexican officials say the Pentagon’s Northern Command, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies are discussing what aviation, surveillance and intelligence assets could be used—both inside Mexico and along the border—to help counter the drug cartels.”

As part of the review, Homeland Security is working with the Air Force to identify the most useful military surveillance technology for monitoring land, sea and air traffic along the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Juan A. Muñoz-Torres said the technologies under consideration include “sensored manned aircraft and ground-based sensors” in addition to unmanned aerial drones.

In August, Mr. Obama signed a law that provides $600 million for new border technology—including two new Predator unmanned aerial vehicles—and additional Border Patrol, customs and law-enforcement agents. By the end of September, around 1,200 members of the National Guard are expected to be deployed to the southwestern border region to support the Border Patrol and other law-enforcement agencies.

[...]

A former senior U.S. counternarcotics official said intelligence from the few Predator drones flying along the border is being shared with Mexican authorities. Far more surveillance is needed, officials say.”We need to give credit to what President [Felipe] Calderón’s doing taking on this issue,” the official said. “But someone’s going to have to come to the realization that there is a war going on down there and they’re going to need help in combating that war.”

Winnefeld says he is interested in “slower, lighter aircraft” to patrol the U.S. skies, according to AOL News.

A light aircraft or even a fast helicopter, Winnefeld argued, would fill in a crucial gap in capabilities, particularly when it comes to intercepting other small aircraft.

In the nine years since 9/11, NORAD has focused on having F-16s on alert and ready to be scrambled to intercept aircraft that may pose a potential threat. But a slow-flying light aircraft would be more useful than an F-16 in cases where the military is unsure of the intent of an aircraft flying off course or in restricted airspace.

The FAA has been working for some time on new regulations governing the use of drones, but has yet to complete them. And the August incident brought one of the FAA’s key concerns to bear — the prospect that remote operators can lose communications with the aircraft.

Drones routinely operate in war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where there is much less business jet or small plane traffic. FAA officials say there is a greater danger of collisions with such smaller aircraft in the U.S., particularly when drones are flying at lower altitudes away from large cities and airports, in areas where planes aren’t required to have transponders or collision warning systems.

In such cases, according to the FAA, it is more important for pilots to be able to see each other and take action.

Winnefeld said he was in the operations center watching when controllers lost the link to their Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout during a test at the naval air station at Patuxent River, Md., and it flew into the capital region’s restricted airspace.

“Do you let it fly over the national capital region? Let it run out of gas and hopefully crash in a farmer’s field? Or do you take action and shoot it down?” said Winnefeld. “You don’t want to shoot it down over a populated area if you can avoid it. We were going through all of that calculus.”

As the fighter jets were about to be launched, he said, the Navy was able to reprogram the helicopter-like craft and bring it back.

Winnefeld said he agrees with the need for airspace safety, but maintains there is great demand for the drones and the military should be able to get them into the air more quickly when needed.

“We can’t move quickly enough for me to solve this problem,” Winnefeld said. “We need to push forward into getting the technology and the permission and the comfort level up to where we can do this as a matter of routine. This is where the future is going.”

Speaking to defense reporters, Winnefeld said discussions are continuing with the FAA to find ways to streamline the approval process. At the same time, he said the Defense Department also must address FAA’s safety concerns by insuring that the drones have the software and systems necessary to fly safely.

He also said he is considering the need for a slower and lighter piloted aircraft that could be used during events such as outdoor sports games, political conventions or inaugural activities. The high-flying F-16 fighter jets are too fast for some missions.

While his review is only just beginning, Winnefeld said there may be a need for an aircraft that can fly much more slowly and at lower levels to monitor events. He said he’d like to have some answers within a year.

Source: AP News

(With additional reporting by RAW STORY)

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