On Friday, March 14, 2014, Jim Zortman, vice president of global logistics and operational support for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, addressed the inaugural Air & Space Symposium held at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, California. Below are his remarks.
Integrating Unmanned Aerial Systems into the National Air Space
It's a great pleasure to be here today at the first-ever Air & Space Law Symposium. In that spirit of "firsts" I thought I'd begin my remarks with a reference to the Wright Brothers who began the modern age of powered flight on December 17, 1903. I think our nation's history in manned flight provides an excellent historical roadmap for how we could successfully address the legal, political, ethical and social issues now hindering our more rapid integration of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the National air space.
This photo of Wilbur Wright circling the Statue of Liberty was taken in the fall of 1909. The flight was part of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York and Wright, was there by invite from the event organizers. More than a million people lined the New York waterfront and the flights were front page news in papers from Manhattan to Missouri.
Think about it. Just six years after the first manned flight, airplanes were still an unproven, some would say a dangerous technology. But flying above a crowd of millions in America's greatest city was neither a criminal act nor considered impossible. It was something to be celebrated and cheered without fear. Yet today, if you tried to fly a UAS around the Statue of Liberty you'd probably wind up in jail. The news headlines would be hysterical and the twittersphere would explode. This is despite the fact that even the simplest UAS is more sophisticated and arguably much safer than the Wright Flyer. Why is that and how can we change that? Those are questions I hope we can address at this symposium.
Watching Wilbur's historic flight that day was a 10 year old boy named Juan Trippe. Trippe was inspired by Wilbur's feat that day. He started at Yale, dropped out to complete Navy Flight training, but the end of WWI caused him to leave the Navy and Return to Yale after which he founded an air-taxi service soon after graduation. Trippe, went on to found Pan Am Airlines and revolutionize and many would argue really create the market for domestic and international air travel. James Landis – head of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) said "If anybody ever flies to the moon, the very next day Trippe will ask CAB to authorize regular service." In pushing limits, he did something really important. He managed to pull both technology and public opinion into the future. And by defining the debate and boldly demonstrating the commercial viability of flight, Trippe helped spur Federal legislative action that facilitated America's leadership role in aviation that continues today.
In 1925, before Trippe founded Pan Am he was awarded an air mail contract for his Colonial Air Transport airline. Flying the mail was a dangerous business. One of his pilots was nicknamed "Lucky Lindy" for surviving several horrific crashes. He would later become famous for not crashing into the Atlantic on the first non-stop solo flight to Europe. That plane built right here in San Diego by Ryan Airlines.
Air mail was a great impetus to action. The next twenty years saw manned aviation grow exponentially despite the great Depression and World War. The U.S. government, regardless of which party was in power, pushed us into the prosperous future. Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1925 which facilitated the creation of a profitable commercial airline industry. In 1926 the Air Commerce Act was passed which charged the Secretary of Commerce with promoting air commerce, issuing and enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots, certifying aircraft and establishing airways. In the 1930's the government worked with the fledgling airlines to establish the first air traffic control centers. The Civil Aeronautics Act in 1938 focused on air safety standards, airline fares and routes.
WWII saw massive government investment in aircraft technology that benefitted the commercial aviation industry for the next decades. In 1958, the Federal Aviation Act created the Federal Aviation Agency independent of the Bureau of Commerce. That same year, Juan Trippe's Pan Am operated its first jet flight, further revolutionizing the industry and leading to explosive growth and innovation that keeps the FAA busy right up until today.
The story of manned aviation in America is one of bold, coordinated action between government and industry, in good times and bad, which advanced technology and shaped public policy for great economic benefit. It's the story of an American public that wasn't paralyzed by fear or doubt even though air power was used to effective but brutal effect in War and civil aviation still had its share of highly-publicized crashes.
So where are we today when it comes to the reality of UAS both in military and commercial roles? Well, it's a mixed bag.
Just after 9/11, the U.S. military possessed a handful of unmanned systems. Now they possess over ten thousand, many small hand-operated UAS. In January, the Pentagon issued a new 25-year roadmap for unmanned systems. The military plans to spend nearly $22 billion dollars over the next five years. But the Pentagon's been very clear that efficiency, affordability and interoperability will be the drivers to future procurement decisions. The recent budget put forth by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel makes notional deep cuts in some UAS programs.
For growth in UAS to sustain and like manned aviation really take off, the commercial and civilian markets must develop. The economic potential for unmanned systems is why companies like Google are making aggressive moves into robotics. Google's recent purchases of both robot-maker Boston Dynamics and artificial intelligence start-up Deep Mind point to the widening of the playing field when it comes to unmanned systems in the commercial/civilian world. Just last week, Facebook announced they would buy Titan Aerospace, a maker of near-orbital, solar-powered UAS as a means of facilitating Internet access in those areas without the necessary infrastructure, particularly in Africa.
As for real world UAS penetration into commercial markets, agriculture, border security, and airfreight are obvious targets much like airmail was in Trippe and Lindbergh's day. But for the UAS market to meet its full potential they have to be safe and cost-effective. Northrop Grumman, and a host of companies are working on a number of technologies to make that a reality. They include better power generation, advancing autonomy, developing better sense and avoid capabilities, cyber security, interoperability and communication links. The pace of innovation is accelerating. Technology will not be the problem. For example:
This is the X-47B, designed right here in San Diego by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Navy. It's a demonstration program to prove a tailless, low-observable UAS can operate from a carrier. In a series of flight tests last year, The Navy and Northrop Grumman were able to land the X-47B on a carrier as well as launch it via the catapult. This amazing achievement can't be overstated. Operating a jet aircraft in the carrier environment is incredibly complex and dangerous for even the most experienced pilot. Doing it with a UAS is real historical milestone that's changed the direction of naval aviation. In fact, it will change the direction of all unmanned aviation because if you can safely operate a UAS from a carrier, it's not a stretch to say you can safely operate it anywhere.
The technology is here today. The social and regulatory issues are quite frankly more daunting. Unless they are addressed, they threaten to derail an industry that could one day rival and potentially exceed that of manned aviation.
I won't go into great detail but there is healthy debate going on about the ethics of UAS both in the military and commercial sphere. On the military front, the perception of UAS as "killing machines" taking out human targets. This feeds into a widespread belief of "bad" technology unhinged from human control. Popular culture abounds with stories of robots from the computer "HAL" in "2001" to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" to the black-suited cyberkillers in "The Matrix." There's no heroic "Lucky Lindy" or Amelia Earhart to capture the public imagination and give a positive face to unmanned systems. Of course, the countless service men and women who have benefited from this revolutionary technology may beg to differ. But with most of our citizens removed from the reality of dealing with UAS, it's a difficult argument to make.
The negative perception of technology run amok has made its way into the role of UAS in the commercial realm. Privacy and safety issues are certainly paramount. At a Senate hearing in January, Senator Dianne Feinstein described looking out the window of her home and seeing a small, UAS. "The drone wheeled around and crashed," she said during the hearing. And let's face it. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, some on both sides of the political spectrum imagine UAS operating in the National Airspace System (NAS) will lead to 24 hour surveillance of U.S. citizens via flying robots – a scenario not so far from the Hollywood movies I previously mentioned.
At that same Senate hearing, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta assured lawmakers that "Safety is our number one priority" and that the agency needed more time and data to ensure the safe integration of UAS into the NAS.
After a number of frustrating starts, the Congress has set a September 2015 date for the FAA to safely allow commercial unmanned flights in the NAS. That's 18 months away. This year, the FAA established six test sites across the country to facilitate the integration. And the Agency estimates that within five years there will be more than 7,500 unmanned aircraft operating legally in NAS. These represent some limited progress areas such as waivers granted by the FAA for unmanned aircraft being used in NAS for public interest missions including firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, test and evaluation as well as border patrol. But the reality of integrating unmanned aircraft legally into NAS is moving much faster than the bureaucracy established to regulate it. And even that legal authority to act as regulator has been called into question.
At the risk of a non lawyer-me-talking about a court case at a law school.
In early March, an administrative law judge ruled that the FAA lacks the clear cut authority to ban the commercial use of UAS in the NAS. The decision can and will be appealed but it already makes a complicated situation even more complex. Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said this about the ruling "The tone has shifted" and the issue "is finally starting to get the attention it deserves at the highest levels of the FAA." Meanwhile, the states are taking their own actions to regulate UAS. In 2013 some 43 states considered some 96 bills related to UAS operating in their air space.
Into this chaotic situation we find a broad range of interested parties are flying small, inexpensive UAS for their purposes without seeking any approval. From filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who used UAS to capture shots in "The Wolf of Wall Street" to countless real estate agents who use UAS to record beauty shots of their listings, to kids playing around with GoPro cameras and quad copters, American's are moving on and finding innovative uses for the technology faster than the law, policy and regulation can catch up.
We are, quite simply, a far cry from the concerted, coordinated efforts of the past century that saw manned aviation flourish and become synonymous with American know how and freedom. There is frustration and pent-up demand from industry to speed up the process of integration and be more flexible in pathfinder applications.
Despite the current status quo which seems to please no one, I believe there is hope. Government, industry and academia can take a coordinated approach to solve the legal, ethical, social and technical issues that are threatening American dominance in this technology. And San Diego is particularly well-placed to lead the way. Maybe someday we will have an unmanned aircraft make an inspiring trip around the California tower.
Yes. Northrop Grumman is here. General Atomics is here. University of San Diego, San Diego State, UCSD – they are all here. The Air Law Institute. The California Western School of Law. All here. And most importantly, all you are here. Debating the issues. Looking for answers. Pledging cooperation. Building consensus. Acting in concert to ensure the future of UAS takes its cue from the history of manned aviation so wonderfully on display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
There is a reason that English is the language of aviation in general and air traffic control in particular. America led the way. Defined the debate. Established the laws. Advanced the technology. In today's competitive, global economy, that leadership role cannot be taken for granted. Right now the EU, China, and even Israel are emerging players in the unmanned market. They too have critical masses of talent, resources and technology to take leadership positions.
Lindbergh was Lucky. We can't afford to let luck determine our future. We'll need to get to work. And there's no time to waste.