Congress OK’s expanded drone flights over the U.S.; bill headed to President Obama’s desk

By Joseph Straw

Congress has approved legislation allowing expanded drone flights over the U.S., and possibly some scenic sections of the Empire State.

The bill will guide operation of the Federal Aviation Administration for four years and gives the agency until September 2015 to open up more airspace to the remotely controlled vehicles.

In New York, that could mean Air National Guard MQ-9 Reaper drone training missions over the bucolic 6.1 million acres of Adirondack Park, flown out of Hancock Field in Syracuse.

Lawmakers around the country, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) see continued growth in military and civilian drone use, and want to lock in aerospace dollars — and jobs — for their constituents.

The Guard’s 174th Fighter Wing currently flies Reapers from Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum 90 minutes north of Hancock, where unit pilots control the planes remotely.

Late last year the 174th flew its first missions in the state, dropping a laser-guided bomb on a Fort Drum range and venturing out over nearby Lake Ontario.

Training flights in controlled airspace over the base and the lake continue, said unit spokesman Maj. Jeff Brown.

The unit supports daily combat missions overseas. Last year the unit deployed 80 airmen overseas, with an upcoming deployment of 30 unit security personnel, Brown said.

While the drones are cheaper than manned craft, they lack the redundancies and hands-on control that add safety, thus restricting operations to sparsely populated areas.

The Department of Homeland Security has flown its small fleet of drones along the country’s northern and southern borders.

Manned Air Force jets including A-10 Warthogs and F-16 Falcons regularly trained over Adirondack Park in the past. Park advocates welcome the propeller-driven drone alternative because they fly quietly at high altitude.

The bill authorizes $63.4 billion for the FAA over four years, including about $11 billion for the air traffic system and its modernization.

The bill, headed to President Obama’s desk for his signature, paves the way for a U.S. air traffic control system switch from ground-based radar to more accurate GPS-based tracking of airliners.

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