A Future View of UAV Safety & Surveillance

By Scott Spangler on February 7th, 2013
The 1.8 gigapixel looks at 20 square miles at once.

Comments on last week’s post on UAVs focused on safety and privacy, and rightly so. Most offered valid examples of why UAVs won’t work today, and I won’t argue because I agree. At the same time, I can see how UAVs will safely integrate with populated aircraft in the not too distant future. As for the privacy concerns, watch the video, and then we’ll talk.

The 1.8 gigapixel ARGUS-IS sensor is impressive, isn’t it. Imagine, a 20-square-mile view with the ability to focus on objects as small as 6 inches in 65 different windows while not losing the larger view. Each UAV equipped with this system streams a million terabytes of data, equal to 5,000 hours of video, a day.

It sounds threatening and scary until you think about who’s going to watch it. Don’t give the government too much credit. It’s as disorganized and dysfunctional as any civilian operation. I’m sure the government workers at all levels only wish their technology was as cutting edge and capable of finding and displaying needle in the haystack aerial surveillance video in any multiple of the time it takes in the movies.

As for safely integrating UAVs into a sky filled with populated planes, remember one word: NextGen. Yes, I know, it is not yet fully operational and it has its problems, but like the antiquated ATC technology we now depend on, engineers will work all the bugs out NextGen.

If you dig into the NextGen systems that keep everyone from bumping into each other in positive control airspace, it’s easy to see that the only real difference between a populated plane and UAV is where the pilot sits, cockpit or cubicle. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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13 Responses to “A Future View of UAV Safety & Surveillance”

  1. Rob Stapleton Says:

    I have not read all of the posts but am interested in whether or not UAVs have collision avoidance systems. As an aviation safety organization there is much concern among commercial operators and some who fly low level float plane operations in the mountains and in mountain passes about mid-air collision.
    Many of the most popular mountain passes in Alaska are too narrow for extreme avoidance manuevers which is currently being discussed with the industry here.

  2. Ronald Wright Says:

    The only BIG difference between private companies and govt is that PRIVATE companies have responsibility and concern where govt does what it wants, when it wants and how it wants with NO regard for anyone.. Govt answers to no one, especially the people who employ them; US.. Just ask any govt employee WHO they work for and their answer will be; the GOVT..

  3. richard Says:

    Besides the potential for abuse(trust your government and all the idiots that populate it?) I seriously am against anything in the air that’s not being piloted by a REAL PILOT…not some armchair video game junky…they should have a license…at least at the LSA level. It is a big deal where the pilot sits, cockpit or cubicle if the one in either seat is not a certificated pilot.

  4. Barry Campbell Says:

    My concern is that we should not be spying on or invading US Citizens privacy. It is the same as video recording people without their knowledge. Also, if a general aviation or commercial airplane crashes, they are held liable, who is liable if a UAV crashes? Let’s use them for the original intention, serving the military outside the US.

  5. Charles Stark Says:

    Mr. Spangler is probably correct when he discusses the safety of UAV integration into US airspace but he is hopelessly naive in his assessment of the dangers of their intrusive surveillance of US citizens.

  6. CO Flyer Says:

    Personally, I’m not terribly concerned about the Fed’s use of drones in the National Airspace – there are laws prohibiting domestic federal surveillance except in very restricted circumstances, and the operators will be well-trained.

    I’m much more concerned about drone use by local law enforcement and by private companies that don’t have such surveillance restrictions and will probably not be as well trained (and maybe not equipped for “see and avoid”).

  7. George P Burdell Says:

    The problem with those “disorganized … dysfuntional” government (and civilian) organizations: they have little or no control over the security of that data nor who can access it. And don’t forget about automated systems that can sort through those terabytes without a single human having to look at it. Sorry, but your argument rings hollow in these days when “no search warrant required” for investigations on a whim is the norm, where bad guys in foreign countries can and do get access to our personal data, and where “big brother” is your internet search provider selling information to multi-national corporations, not (just) Uncle Sam. The worries about mass surveilance are very real.

  8. Mike Says:

    NextGen isn’t the answer to safety with UAVs. It is possible for aircraft to fly in controlled airspace outside of airport terminal areas under visual flight rules WITHOUT communicating with air traffic control or even having a transponder (the device in the aircraft that broadcasts it’s presence to air traffic control radar receivers). Additionally, not all aircraft are currently required to have equipment installed on board to recieve and display NextGen traffic information.

    You’re also not considering low altitudes and close proximity to the ground that UAVs would typically operate in. The bottom of controlled airspace outside of airport terminal areas is typically 700 or 1200 feet above ground level (AGL). That leaves a lot of room to fly a UAV without entering controlled airspace.

    In addition, the FAA regulations are VERY clear regarding safe navigation. It is the responsibility of the pilot in command (PIC) to ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft under visual flight rules. That would also include the pilot of a UAV. Not an easy task for the PIC of a UAV that is not located in the aircraft and has a very limited field of view around the aircraft.

    Also, not only must the UAV pilot see and avoid other aircraft, other pilots in the air must be able to see and avoid the UAVs. Given the small size of some UAVs, it would be very difficult to spot them in time to avoid them.

    As the holder of a commercial helicopter pilot license that typically flys in the lower altitudes where UAVs are likely to be found, my primary concern with UAVs IS safety. If they’re operating where I’m flying will I be able to see and avoid them? Will they be able to see and avoid me?

  9. Mariano Says:


    With all due respect, which pilot* do you think has a greater vested interest in a successful landing of his craft; the one who’s slipped the surly bonds or the one whom is sitting in front of an LCD display?

    I posit that the one in the air will ALWAYS have more information and pay more attention and it is the information and attention deficit of those sitting comfortably behind a monitor, distracted by the chit-chat coming over his cubicle wall, that will cause the first accident; NEXGEN or not.

    NOTE: A pilot is only a designation/title that should be afforded to the actual humans who are in the sky. A [UAV Operator] might also be a licensed pilot but I posit NOT while acting as a [UAV Operator] sitting on the ground. One does not have the situational awareness of a pilot while sitting on the ground looking into a monitor. Impossible: Cameras and sensors or not.

  10. T D Welander Says:

    You are still not getting it. It does not matter how disoriented any government entity may be at any given moment. What matters are the U.S. Constitutional Bill of Rights, privacy and domestic tranquility in particular. UAVs and drones can never be legal except with a search warrant because they would violate these two fundamental legal rights; to say nothing of the dangers they would impose. There currently is no substitute for a pilot in the cockpit based on the safest scenario. All artificial systems fail at the worst possible time; a given making UAVs and drones highly unlawful.

  11. gary efferding Says:

    having worked in drone development in the past
    i have observed the biggest mistakes in fundamental design made early on in certain projects, then maintained rather than discarded. The fundamental process in FAA certification is completely ignored by most drone manufacturers.Some do work.If you examine the ‘few’ drones that are always in the limelight youll find the exceptions; these examples were built from the start as if manned. A senior procurement officer in the pentagon put it best using the words, acquisition malpractice. Its hard to imagine the FAA opening U.S. airspace any time soon to this predominantly (wild-west) technology.

  12. Herb Kilian Says:

    What a naive statement: everything will be just great, NextGen will fix it. First, it doesn’t exist fully and 95% of GA aircraft are not equipped. Second, how do you maintain separation in a sky also used by non-transponder equipped VFR planes, some stealthy such as gliders? How about the tube and rag hanggliders and parasails? The author has no clue what hazards are out there.

  13. http://google.com Says:

    A Future View of UAV Safety & Surveillance – Jetwhine was in fact a remarkable
    post, can not help but wait to read through alot more of your postings.
    Time to spend some time on the net hehe. Thanks for your effort ,Sanford

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