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Droning along the northern border

Droning along the northern border

Predator unmanned aerial vehicle

Pilots in the South have had to deal with them. Now pilots flying near the northern U.S. border may have to share airspace with unmanned drones. But AOPA is continuing its efforts to ensure that general aviation pilots aren't put at risk or needlessly inconvenienced.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced that a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) could start patrolling a section of the U.S.-Canada border by this fall, launching from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

"While we know that the DHS eventually intends to deploy Predators along the northern border, our talks with the FAA this week revealed that there is no official timetable for starting the flights, nor has Homeland Security obtained a certificate of authorization from the FAA allowing their UAVs to fly northern patrols," said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs.

"And before they do fly, we'll work with the FAA to make sure that safety is maintained."

AOPA has learned that recent improvements to the Predator's sensor package mean that it can routinely fly patrols above 18,000 feet in Class A (positive control) airspace. That means no temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) would be required to protect GA aircraft from the drones while on patrol.

"Predator climbs and descents are another matter," said Rudinger. "Along the Mexico border, the Predator UAVs are launched and recovered through existing special-use airspace."

But there are no restricted or prohibited areas near Grand Forks.

"AOPA would oppose any new special-use airspace created solely for UAV border patrols," said Rudinger.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman told AOPA late Tuesday that the northern patrol was a pilot program mandated by Congress. Only one Predator UAV will be flying; specific details, timetable, and airspace requirements have yet to be established. The agency would like to start flying patrols by late summer or early fall.

January 17, 2007

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