GAO: Regs needed for unmanned aerial systems

The number of Unmanned Aerial Systems being built for civilian uses ? including those for law enforcement, firefighting and science ? is expected to quadruple between 2012 and 2017 assuming relevant federal regulations are completed before then, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

From 40 civilian unmanned systems to be built in 2012, industry sources estimate that number will increase to more than 160 such systems annually by 2017, the report said.

In addition to military uses, the federal government uses unmanned aerial systems for scientific and weather data and border protection. During the coming years, their uses are predicted to expand to law enforcement, firefighting and post-disaster communications.

"The military's use of unmanned aerial systems has raised the visibility of the possible benefits of using UASs in non-military applications," the GAO said.

Advances in computer technology, software development, lightweight materials, global navigation, advanced data links, sophisticated sensors and component miniaturization also contribute to the heightened interest in employing such systems in civilian roles, the GAO states.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently authorizes use of unmanned aerial systems on a case-by-case basis. The FAA is working with the Defense Department to develop airspace safety regulations that would allow the systems to get more use.

The GAO report suggests that Congress create an entity in the FAA to coordinate plans for developing unmanned systems. It also advises the Homeland Security Department to assess the security implications of routine operation of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The operation, maintenance and integration of unmanned aerial systems with other systems are active areas for federal contractors.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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