Department of Defense Drones on the Decline


Three contract maintainers walk an RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle into a shelter. They are assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jason Ridder)

The Department of Defense appears to be drastically slowing its procurement of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for FY2014. That change is according to a report on the website of the Federation of American Scientists from Nov. 12. The combined reduction from FY 2013 is $1.3 billion, divided between R&D and procurement.

Reductions ought not to be entirely unexpected. Larger drones, such as the Reaper, have a service life similar to a manned aircraft. Just as the B-52 and the F-18 have received continual upgrades in avionics and weapons systems, so will larger UAS systems. Smaller drones, used by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, will be in less demand as the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. They are less durable but they will also been needed less. The demand for UAS systems will grow outside of the Pentagon, as the use of drones expands in other areas of government and private sector..


The FAA has a website where it addresses the increase in the use of drones in the United States, by both military and civilian operations. Through June 30, 2011, the agency had issued 61 Certificates of Authorization for UAS systems in the nation. Most COAs were issued to universities, to a scattering of police agencies and to departments of the Federal Government. Since then, an additional 498 public certificates have been announced. In Jan. 2012, the University of Alaska used an emergency COA that allowed it to examine the ice pack blocking the port of Nome, in Alaska. Their observations were an important part in the delivery of emergency fuel to that cutoff community.


NPR reported in June that tens of thousands of small drones have been sold in the U.S. Limited to flying under 400 feet above ground by the FAA, these UAS systems are intended by hobbyists. The FAA bans commercial use but many of their owners are flying “under the radar” with their uses.  Domino’s is said by some to have tested a UAS system that can deliver 2 large pizzas.

The agency has not yet finalized regulations for UAS operations in controlled airspace. It has attempted to address privacy concerns through regulation but that will clearly be reevaluated as the number of drones in America’s skies grows. The Electric Power Research Institute is testing UAS technology, for example, that would allow electric companies to inspect their transmission lines after storms or other natural disasters, to reduce power outages and locate damage more efficiently.

Charles Simmins brings thirty years of accounting and management experience to his coverage of the news. An upstate New Yorker, he is a freelance journalist, former volunteer firefighter and EMT, and is owned by a wife and four cats.

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