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FAA slow to grant airspace for N.D. unmanned aircraft

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Unmanned aircraft
The Global Hawk aircraft will be based at Grand Forks Airforce base sometime in the next two years.
Courtesy Northrop Grumman

Military officials say they need restricted training airspace for a planned unmanned aircraft base in Grand Forks, but the FAA says it's not ready to establish such an airspace in North Dakota.

The Air Force says 35 percent of all aircraft ordered by the military in the next five years will be piloted from the ground by remote control. 

Two unmanned planes, the Predator and the Global Hawk, will be stationed in North Dakota. The military wants a 35-mile by 45-mile area set aside for training. 

At a field hearing in Grand Forks this morning, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., criticized the Pentagon and the FAA for moving too slowly. 

"There's no excuse for them not meeting time lines to find a way to make certain that where you have decided to locate unmanned aerial vehicles, you've also created the opportunity for training for the [unmanned aerial vehicles] and their crews," Dorgan said.

Brigadier General Leon Rice said demand for what the military calls remotely-piloted aircraft is outpacing the ability to train crews. 

"Really our limiting factor now is the training airspace for the crews themselves," Rice said. "We have six RPA platforms, Predators, in the state right now in boxes, waiting to be opened up and put into the sky."

UAS hearing
FAA Chief Operating Officer Hank Krakowski, second from left, told a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing in Grand Forks on Monday, September 13, 2010 that the FAA must move carefully in allowing unmanned aircraft to fly in the national airspace.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Unmanned aircraft can't be flown in the U.S. except in cases where the FAA approves a conditional waiver. The military said a waiver won't meet their training needs. They want a piece of sky set aside for unmanned aircraft.

Major General Marke Gibson said the military knows how to safely fly unmanned craft with manned aircraft. He points to Afghanistan as an example. 

"The operations at Kandahar on an annual basis approximates Miami International [based on the number of traffic counts]," he said. "We move our unmanned systems in an out of that airfield without shutting it down, without any special segregation. They move like any other aircraft."

But the FAA isn't convinced. The FAA has concerns about the ability of unmanned craft to avoid collisions with civilian aircraft, said Hank Krakowski, head of the FAA's air traffic arm.

"You know, we have to do this deliberatively," he said. "These are unusual vehicles to enter in to the national airspace system; they were designed for typically the war theater."

Krakowski said the FAA needs support of the Airline Pilots Association and the general aviation industry before opening airspace to unmanned aircraft. 

Dorgan criticized both the FAA and the Pentagon for missing deadlines to provide promised reports on airspace to Congress.  

After the hearing, Dorgan called the questioning a way to light a fire under bureaucracies. He said they need to find a way to make sure the project moves forward quickly.

"To not do that is a terrible waste of taxpayers money, it diminishes our defense capability and just doesn't make any sense," he said.

National Guard crews in Fargo are currently flying unmanned aircraft in the Middle East. Within the next two years, the primary mission of the Grand Forks Air Base will be flying unmanned aircraft.