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Congress learns drawbacks of unmanned aircraft border patrolsCongress learns drawbacks of unmanned aircraft border patrols

Congress learns drawbacks of unmanned aircraft border patrols
AOPA continues push for protection of GA

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Altair/Predator B (courtesy of NASA)

Is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico a good idea? Recent congressional testimony suggests that it might not be a panacea.

AOPA has been advocating a "seamless integration" of UAVs, fearing that they may not mix well with existing general aviation aircraft already using the airspace. And AOPA has been raising those concerns with members of Congress, including Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-Miss.), the ranking Democratic member of the Homeland Security Committee.

During a hearing last week, Rep. Thompson asked if it costs more to operate a UAV than a manned aircraft. The answer from Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner was surprising.

According to Skinner's written testimony, one UAV requires a crew of up to 20 support personnel. The operating cost is more than double that of a manned aircraft. (The Hermes UAV, for example, costs $1,351 per flight hour to operate. A Cessna 182 with pilot would be about $200 an hour.) A UAV can remain in the air for up to 20 hours, but its usefulness can be limited by cloud cover, icing, and thunderstorms.

"In all of our interactions with federal officials, including AOPA's representation on the RTCA UAV special committee, we have insisted that unmanned aerial vehicles must not have a negative impact on general aviation operations," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "They should be certified to the same level of safety as piloted aircraft and should reliably sense and avoid other aircraft."

AOPA has also opposed creating restrictive airspace for UAV operations. A 15 nautical mile-wide TFR along the U.S. southern border, for example, would impact more than 100 airports, more than 1,300 based aircraft, and nearly 750,000 annual general aviation flight operations.

December 21, 2005

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