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Finding a place for drones in central New York skies

white airplane shaped drone flying over rolling green feild

Unmanned Aircraft Systems or drones are coming to our domestic airways by the end of 2015. Formerly better known for their role in warfare, drones are on their way to becoming as ubiquitous in our skies in commercial guise.

The Federal Aviation Administration is working to come up with the necessary anti-collision technology, called ‘Sense and Avoid’ to make flying these aerial systems safe. The FAA chose six testing sites across the country to roll the unmanned vehicles out; Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, New Jersey and upstate New York.

Syracuse is the home base for NUAIR, the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research and Alliance. The group is a consortium of over 40 different academic and business institutions charged with safely testing drones in the skies from central New York all the way east into Massachusetts.    

NUAIR Executive Director and General Council, Larry Brinker says their testing program will provide data to the FAA to help them develop rules and regulations for domestic drone use.

“The ultimate goal is for a UAS [Unmanned Aircraft System] to fly side by side with a manned aircraft.”

NUAIR is not only testing the safety of the crafts in the air, they’re also developing qualifications for UAS pilots on the ground. Drone operators, who ‘fly’ the crafts, will be traditionally certified pilots of conventional aircraft. They’ll also have to demonstrate they can fly under instrument conditions and not rely on sight.

NUAIR is also working to ensure pilots and drones have tamper-proof communications so the aircraft is under control at all times.

So far, NUAIR is only working with the New York City based Flytera. The company, which has successful sister operations in Canada and France, flies lightweight hand launched aircrafts known as DT-18 drones.

Other UAS can be as large as 10,000lbs and can fly as high as 60,000ft.

Flytera’s systems are currently used overseas and provide high resolution images through camera and infrared systems for mining, natural gas and oil pipelines and the agriculture industries. That’s where Brinker sees the best use for US drones.

“The expectation is that about 80% of the commercial UAS use in America will be directed towards agriculture. There is a coming food shortage so if we can use the UAS to increase the output of American agriculture, we solve not only the commercial problem for American’s farmers but we also help solve the world food shortage problem.”

The implications for regulating privacy is what has regulators and others scratching their heads.

Recently the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation held a hearing in Washington on the FAA’s plans to integrate commercial drones into American airspace. Commissioner Michael Huerta testified before a Senate Commission recently, that while the FAA is working to ensure the safe use of drones there are no plans to include privacy protections.

“Even today, we don’t have a full and complete understanding of where this is going in the future and that’s one of the things that creates the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenges.”

Drones, which are lighter than the average flying craft, are less expensive to operate and able to hover in a location longer. Outfitted with a camera, a microphone or even infrared technology, a drone in the wrong hands can pose a serious threat to individual liberties.

At the behest of the Peace Council and the ACLU, the Syracuse Common Council became the fifth US city to pass a resolution banning drones from city airspace. The resolution is a symbolic gesture, meant to push organizations like NUAIR and the FAA to address privacy and personal security issues.

Syracuse Peace Council member, Ann Tiffany says their concern is protecting 1st and 4th amendment rights.

“My neighbor can put a camera on a drone and come over to my property. How that information is used is going to be where the regulations come in. I think it’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to be hard to regulate it. It’s going to be hard to follow through on those regulations, but we have no idea and I just feel that we need to be as watchful as we can and to protect the rights of the citizens of Syracuse.”

She says drone operators should have to publicly disclose what data they are collecting, what it will be used for and how long will it be held?

So far none of the regulating agencies have indicated how or if they will address those concerns.

Tiffany’s partner Ed Kinane, also with the Syracuse Peace Council, has been actively protesting military drone strikes from Hancock Field, the Air National Guard Base in DeWitt. He wonders if the US government has considered whether the proliferation of unmanned aircrafts in American airspace will make a convenient infiltration option for other countries.

“We’re going to have on the planet much more drone activity in the years to come. Probably, unless somehow we can get this under control and on the domestic side of the US they’re anticipating thousands of drones in the air. Well, what if an enemy drone sneaks into the US airspace? How do you distinguish that from domestic drones?”

Tiffany and Kinane also have an unlikely ally in this matter. Conservative Assemblyman, Bill Nojay (R ) who represents Livingston as well as parts of Steuben and Monroe counties says he’s pleased that central New York has been chosen to help develop this potentially lucrative industry, however he has concerns over the spread and potential abuse of the technology.

“We need laws to protect private citizens against the improper use of the technology, the invasion of the privacy, weather that technology is in the hands of the government, private citizens, business or even not-for profit organizations.”

During the Senate Committee hearing in Washington, the ACLU brought up aircrafts like the ARGUS drone which can map images of an entire city and pick out an individual at 20,000 feet. Chris Calabrese, who testified for the ACLU says it’s far more dangerous than technology like Google Earth, because Google blurs identifiers like faces and license plates.

There are champions of drone technology who insist in the right hands, an unmanned aerial system can be an innovative technology.

In the Finger Lakes community of Canandaigua, Brian Pitre runs his business SkyOp. He’s the managing director of the organization that provides distribution, maintenance and education on UAS aircrafts. He currently flies his systems as a hobbyist. That means under FAA regulations, his crafts are less than 55lbs and go no higher than 400 feet off of the ground. Pitre sees his systems as breaking new ground in the fields of photography and filmmaking.

“When they see it fly they just say, ‘Oh my God!’ it’s so cool.”

man crouches over an infinite jib drone with camera
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail
SkyOp Managing Director Brian Pitre preparing his custom build Infinite Jib drone which is outfitted with a video camera

The technology, Pitre says is already in the global zeitgeist. Countries like Japan, France, Canada and Australia are anywhere from 10 to 20 years ahead in their drone airspace integration, he says. He hopes the US government will see the writing on the wall before it falls behind the rest of the world in a rapidly expanding technology.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing too many negatives talked about in the privacy area. I think we need to talk more about [using drones] actually saving children and saving dementia people and saving fire fighters lives and police lives by using these things.”

In the next 5 years, the FAA expects as many as 7,500 small aircrafts like the ones Pitre flies to be added to US airspace with the necessary regulations in place. In 20 years the number of domestic commercial drones could expand to 20,000 or even 30,000 nationwide.

The UAS industry is expected to generate 70,000 jobs and over $13-billion in revenue.

There are constantly new applications for drone technology being proposed. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced Amazon Prime Air, a plan where drone-like ‘octocopters’ could deliver packages up to 5lbs to customers in 30-minutes, provided they were within a 10-mile radius. This too is on hold until the FAA signs off on the plan.

It seems there are more questions than answers in the realm of drone robotics.

One thing that is clear is the unlimited potential of the technology. NUAIR Executive Director Larry Brinker says once the financial incentive is there, the market will explode.

“We’re gonna create an industry and that’s where that really smart person in the garage is gonna make a TON of money.”

NUAIR hopes to start running tests of ‘heavier’ airplane sized drones out of Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, as early as this spring.

Editors Note: Additional coverage of the drone issue in upstate New York by Innovation Trail reporter Ryan Delaney, can be found here.

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