U.S. Security Agency Begins Small UAS Testing

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will begin testing and evaluating small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) this month near Lawton, Oklahoma, under a federal and state initiative to study UAS applications for emergency response. The DHS is also considering the use of small UAS by its constituent organizations: the Coast Guard and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.

John Appleby, senior director with the DHS science and technology directorate, outlined the department’s Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety (Raps) program at the Air Traffic Control Association conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on October 1. He said the DHS will evaluate UAS weighing “tens of pounds” at an Oklahoma State University test site within the restricted airspace of Fort Sill. The program will focus on “possible applications for first responders, including search-and-rescue scenarios, response to radiological and chemical incidents and fire response and mapping,” according to a release issued by the office of Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin earlier this year. The Oklahoma National Guard will be a “key player” in the initiative.

Appleby noted that CBP has flown General Atomics MQ-9 Predator Bs for border patrol for seven years. They are operated from Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Corpus Christi NAS, Texas; Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota; and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. In June, CBP and the Coast Guard conducted an advanced capabilities demonstration of the Guardian maritime variant of the Predator B in the Caribbean Sea, resulting in the seizure of $284 million worth of marijuana and cocaine. Appleby said part of the intent of the Raps program is to evaluate using small UAS for both CBP and Coast Guard missions. Their quick-response capability “would be a good complement” to the medium-altitude, long-endurance Predators.

At present, public agencies cannot operate UAS in U.S. unrestricted airspace without certificates of authorization (COAs) issued by the FAA. Appleby said the DHS is closely tracking the FAA’s progress toward drafting a small UAS rulemaking that would provide a regulatory framework for operating small unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds in unrestricted airspace. The department is also “very much aware of and focusing on the privacy aspects” of using UAS for surveillance, and may issue its own “department-level white paper” to assist public agencies in using the aircraft.