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February 14 2015

February 17, 2015

14 February 2015


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Idaho company pioneers agricultural drones

by Press • 9 February 2015

By Mike Petrovsky


A company in Idaho’s panhandle thinks its agriculture-related drone business will eventually take off before the start of the growing season despite federal regulations temporarily putting on hold its flight plan into uncharted territory.

Hayden-based Empire Unmanned LLC was launched Jan. 31. The company is a collaborative effort between Advanced Aviation Solutions out of Star, located a little northwest of Boise, and Blair Farms in Kendrick, just southeast of Moscow. The company intends to use drones to help farmers in Idaho, Montana and the Pacific Northwest monitor their crops and ranchers do the same for their livestock from above.

Empire Unmanned is the first business in the U.S. authorized to legally fly drones as a service for agriculture, said company president Brad Ward.

Ward, 44, is a retired Air Force pilot who also flew MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones over his 20-year military career.

“We are hoping to charge (farmers and ranchers) $3 an acre, and with the learning curve, we will bring that cost down,” Ward said.

The company, in business not even two weeks, already has had seven potential customers express interest — most of them large growers.

“The smallest grower that has contacted us has 1,500 acres,” Ward said. “The largest is a rancher with 14,000 acres.”

Yet the former Air Force drone aviator said the amount of acreage really doesn’t matter.

“We’re looking to get the word out to as many farmers and ranchers as we can.” Ward said. “It’s not so much the size of the farm — 200, 500 acres. We don’t have a minimum charge.”

Empire Unmanned plans to use its drones to collect data on grain crops and potatoes in Idaho, cattle in Montana and orchards and vineyards for growers in Washington state and Oregon.

Yet before Empire Unmanned can launch its first agricultural drone, the company has to navigate an increasingly more complicated puzzle of Federal Aviation Administration regulations as they pertain to unmanned aircraft used commercially.


“We are waiting on one last piece – a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA. That’s the only piece,” Ward said, adding that Empire Unmanned expects to officially get its business off the ground on March 1, in time for planting season. “The biggest challenge is regulatory and the changing environment at the FAA (regarding drones). (The number of regulations) is growing and the rules are changing at a fast pace.”

As for drone regulations in Idaho, Ward said the extent of the state law governing drones is simply to not allow the drone to trespass on private property.

The potential benefits to the use of drones in agriculture is great particularly for farmers who practice a type of farming that is known by different names including target farming, zone management and precision agriculture. Ward explains:

“We can tell you what your wheat stand looks like, instead of you walking all 640 acres identifying where you’re having problems with the field. Drones give them (farmers) an idea of what their field is doing — where a particular area is under stress -— so a farmer can go to that spot and figure out what’s going on.”

Ward said a 30-minute drone fly over can provide farmers with crop field data “right down to the square inch,” which means, for example, growers can examine the blossoms on fruit trees without having to go into the orchard with a ladder.

He added that farmers who practice zone management can transfer the coordinates compiled by the drone to their GPS-guided tractors, making the process more efficient and thereby less costly.

One would think growers or ranchers could save even more money if they purchased a drone from Ward’s company outright and operated it themselves.

“We couldn’t in good faith sell an aircraft to farmers knowing that they couldn’t operate it legally,” Ward said.

He explained that last year the U.S. Secretary of Transportation issued the “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.”

“The crux of the matter is … a farmer using a UAS (unmanned aircraft system) to monitor crops that are part of a commercial farming operation do not fall under (federal) ‘Hobby and Recreation’ rules,” Ward said.

He added that model aircraft, which do not meet the federal statutory requirements of the hobby and recreation exemption, are nonetheless unmanned aircraft, and as such, are subject to all existing FAA regulations.

“Depending on the system, there are about 20 Federal Aviation Regulations that the typical small UAS do not comply (with),” Ward said. “A farmer that wants to fly an unmanned aircraft to monitor his crops needs an exemption to these regulations.”

Furthermore, Ward said, the FAA is only approving exemptions for the operators of the aircraft and is not taking applications from manufacturers on behalf of their customers, which means a farmer who buys a drone doesn’t inherit approval to fly it from the manufacturer or reseller, they have to apply for an exemption themselves.

Ward added that as of Saturday morning only 23 companies, with his Empire Unmanned being first on the list, have exemptions to operate drones for commercial agricultural purposes.

Ward outlined how the drones collect the data for growers and ranchers.

“They (drones) take a still picture and all those still pictures it takes are put on to a mosaic map of overlapping images,” he said, adding that one 3-D stereoscopic image is the end result.

As for ranchers, Ward said the drones can be equipped with thermal sensors to seek out water or check on irrigation systems.

“The drones (using thermal imaging) can even take the temperature of (a ranchers’) cows to see which ones are sick,” he said.

Ward points out that using drones and thermal imaging to keep an eye on cattle has never been done before, at least not legally, because to his knowledge Empire Unmanned is the only company to get federal approval to apply drones and thermal imaging to ranching.

But what if something should go wrong? A drone goes out of control, let’s say.

“One of the advantages (Empire Unmanned) has is we have $2 million of liability coverage,” Ward said.

Yet Ward doubts if his company will ever have to take advantage of that coverage because black and yellow drone called eBee it’s using — which is manufactured by the Swiss company senseFly — weighs about a pound and a half and is made mostly out of foam.

“There’s a You-Tube video showing a man knocking the drone out of the sky with his forehead,” Ward said, adding eBee can fly no higher than 400 feet “and you’re pushing really hard to get it to go 45 mph on a dive.”

Empire Unmanned has sky-high ambition, but seems to be pretty short player in the world of commercial aviation giants.

Ward said his company has only three employees, but expects to bring on more once business, well, takes off.

For those looking for a job flying an eBee drone with Empire Unmanned, Ward advises that an applicant must “be a private pilot with a Type 3 medical exam, and they have to meet the flight review requirements for the FAA.”

Yet, despite those requirements, Ward said, “We have no shortage of resumes, so we won’t have to go out of the state (to look for drone pilots).

And Empire Unmanned has, for now, has just one drone, which has yet to get off the ground because the company, as stated before, needs to have that final piece of the FAA regulatory puzzle in place. Five more eBees, however, are on order from senseFly, Ward said.

“In the short term, it is probably going to be pretty slow to start,” he said of his company’s upcoming startup. “We won’t keep all six airplanes busy.”

As an aside, Empire Unmanned this year plans to team up Donna Delparte, an assistant professor with Idaho State University’s Geosciences Department. Delparte’s background is in geographic information systems, or GIS, which is a mapping technology that allows the user to create and interact with a variety of maps and data sources. And Ward said his company’s UAS, will be used to assist Delparte with her research.

“Empire Unmanned is a valued research partner, and we will be collaborating with them to collect multi-spectral imagery using UAS to evaluate potato crop health this upcoming growing season,” Delparte told the Journal in an email early Saturday. “(Empire Unmanned) brings extensive expertise in safe UAS mission planning and flight operations.”

ISU has received a $150,000 federal grant to develop ways to use drones equipped with specialized sensors to monitor crop health.

As Ward stated earlier, drones allow farmers to monitor their fields quickly with less cost.

The aircraft can provide even greater advantages, Delparte told the Associated Press in a recent interview.

“Remote sensing technologies offer the potential to protect U.S. food security by providing rapid assessments of crop health over large areas,” she said.


Ward told the Journal on Friday his company “would like to share expenses” with ISU on Delparte’s potato crop project, but it hasn’t worked out those details with the university yet.


New federal agency to sniff out threats in cyberspace

By Ellen Nakashima

The Washington Post

Published: 09 February 2015 11:07 PM


The Obama administration is establishing a new agency to combat the deepening threat from cyberattacks, and its mission will be to fuse intelligence from around the government when a crisis occurs.

The agency is modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center, which was launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks amid criticism that the government failed to share intelligence that could have unraveled the al-Qaida plot.

Over the past several years, a series of significant cyber-incidents has affected U.S. companies and government networks, increasing the profile of the threat for policymakers and industries. Disruptions, linked to Iran, of major bank websites, a Russian intrusion into the White House’s unclassified computer network and the North Korean hack of Sony Pictures have raised the specter of devastating consequences if critical infrastructure were destroyed.

“The cyberthreat is one of the greatest threats we face, and policymakers and operators will benefit from having a rapid source of intelligence,” Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said in an interview.”It will help ensure that we have the same integrated, all-tools approach to the cyberthreat that we have developed to combat terrorism.”

Monaco will announce the creation of the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center on Tuesday in a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“It’s a great idea,” said Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism official. “It’s overdue.”

Others question why a new agency is needed when the government already has several dedicated to monitoring and analyzing cyberthreat data. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Security Agency all have cyber-operations centers, and the FBI and the NSA are able to integrate information, noted Melissa Hathaway, a former White House cybersecurity coordinator and president of Hathaway Global Strategies.

“We should not be creating more organizations and bureaucracy,” she said. “We need to be forcing the existing organizations to become more effective — hold them accountable.”

The idea of a central agency to analyze cyberthreats and coordinate strategy to counter them isn’t new. But as the threat has grown, the idea has taken hold again.

Monaco, who has a decade of government experience in counterterrorism, has long thought that the lessons learned from fighting terrorism can be applied to cybersecurity. She saw that as a policymaker she could quickly receive an intelligence community assessment on the latest terrorism threat from NCTC, but that was not possible in the cyber realm.

“We need to build up the muscle memory for our cyber-response capabilities, as we have on the terrorism side,” she said.

Last summer, Monaco directed White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel to see whether lessons learned from the counterterrorism world could be applied to cyberthreats. She also revived a cyber-response group for senior staff from agencies around the government, modeled after a similar group in the counterterrorism world, to meet weekly and during crises.

Daniel’s staff concluded that the same defects that contributed to the 2001 terrorist attacks — intelligence agency stove-piping and a failure to combine analysis from across the government — existed in the cyber context.

They recommended the creation of an NCTC for cybersecurity, but some agencies initially resisted. Advocates argued that the new center would not conduct operations or supplant the work of others. Rather it would support their work, providing useful analysis so that the FBI can focus on investigations and DHS can focus on working with the private sector, officials said.

During Thanksgiving week, news broke of a major incident at Sony Pictures Entertainment. In the following days, it became clear the hack was significant: Computers were rendered useless, and massive amounts of email and employee data were pilfered and made public.

President Barack Obama wanted to know the details. What was the impact? Who was behind it? Monaco called meetings of the key agencies involved in the investigation, including the FBI, the NSA and the CIA.

“Okay, who do we think did this?” she asked, according to one participant. “She got back six views.” All pointed to North Korea, but they differed in the degree of certainty. The key gap: No one was responsible for an analysis that integrated all the agency views.

In the end, Monaco asked the FBI to produce one, coordinating with the other agencies.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NCTC, might seem a natural place to provide that analysis. But its small cyber staff focuses on strategic long-term analysis, not a rapid merging of all sources of intelligence about a particular problem.

The Sony incident provided the final impetus for the new center. Monaco began making the rounds at the White House to build support for the center, officials said.

In his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20, Obama made a veiled reference to the center, saying the government would integrate intelligence to combat cyberthreats “just as we have done to combat terrorism.”

Obama will issue a memorandum creating the center, which will be part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The new agency will begin with a staff of about 50 and a budget of $35 million, officials said.

Matthew Olsen, a former NCTC director, said the quality of the threat analysis will depend on a steady stream of data from the private sector, which operates the nation’s energy, financial and other critical systems. “One challenge will be identifying ways to work more closely with the private sector, where cyberthreats are the most prevalent,” he said.

The government and industries need to invest more in technology, information-sharing and personnel training, as well as in deterring and punishing those who carry out cyberattacks, said Michael Leiter, another former NCTC director who is now executive vice president at Leidos, a national security contractor.

The new center “is a good and important step,” Leiter said. “But it is far from a panacea.”



Ash Carter Could Face Big Decisions on Industry Consolidation
By Sandra Erwin

February 7, 2015


The Pentagon in recent years has frowned on mega-mergers of top weapons contractors, a policy that is likely to continue under soon-to-be confirmed Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter.

But Carter could face challenges to that policy in the near future as defense contractors weigh their options in a tight market. There is growing speculation that such a test might come in 2015 or 2016, following the award of a major Air Force contract to build a new stealth bomber.

The competition for the $100 billion Air Force long-range strike bomber program includes three of the Pentagon’s top contractors. The contest pits Northrop Grumman against a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team.

Whoever loses the bomber is likely to come under pressure from investors to make a big move — to either merge with a competitor or acquire a piece of one, predicts aerospace industry analyst Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group.

The Air Force said it plans to make an award some time in 2015. It has budgeted nearly $14 billion for long-range strike bomber research-and-development work through 2020, and procurement would begin some time in the next decade. Additional funding is said to be tucked in the Pentagon’s classified “black” budget.

For the companies, the contest is a matter of long-term survival because the bomber is the only combat aircraft program up for grabs that is likely to go into production in the next decade.

“It’s a fascinating horserace … and the outcome could precipitate a big merger or acquisition,” Aboulafia told executives at a recent meeting of the National Aeronautic Association.

Only Lockheed Martin can afford to lose the bomber contract and still have certainty that it will remain a combat aircraft prime contractor, as it will be producing the F-35 joint strike fighter for decades. But Boeing’s and Northrop Grumman’s future as a combat aircraft prime depends on winning the bomber. “If you are not Lockheed, you’d better win this one,” Aboulafia said.

Under one scenario, if Northrop wins, Boeing could seek to acquire if not the entire company, maybe Northrop’s aerospace unit that would have the bomber contract and also builds sizeable components of the F-35. Aboulafia believes this would be the only option for Boeing to remain a combat aircraft prime contractor if it does not win the bomber deal. If Northrop loses, its investors might conclude that it is more lucrative to break up the company and spin off the aerospace division.

“That is not inconceivable,” he said. The bomber award will be a “huge determinant of the defense industrial base. … It is going to be transformative.”

Boeing continues to manufacture Super Hornet fighter planes for the U.S. Navy and international customers, as well as F-15s. But the last of its current Super Hornet orders would be delivered in 2017 and the last F-15s in 2018, said Aboulafia. Northrop Grumman designed the most recent stealth bomber the Air Force bought in the 1990s, the B-2. The company has military aircraft manufacturing capabilities for both manned and unmanned systems.

Although the Pentagon has drawn a hard line on prime contractor mergers, there might be cases when it might have to reconsider, Aboulafia said. Since the last big wave of industry consolidation in the 1990s, the market has changed dramatically, including the definition of what constitutes a prime contractor. If Northrop doesn’t win the bomber, even if the company is financially healthy and successful, its days as a military airframe prime would be numbered, said Aboulafia. “Does that mean it can sell one or more of its units?” The Pentagon might not be able to make a strong enough case to stop a sale, he said.

“The money you spend is the only real leverage you have,” he said of the Defense Department. “This is a changing environment in terms of investor expectations and company structure. Maybe we’ve forgotten that people do expect either growth or a compelling story to invest their cash.” The companies that are left out of the bomber program will feel pressure from investors, he added. “How do you make your case to Wall Street? An acquisition might be the way forward.”

If the government doesn’t have enough work to keep prime contractors in business independently, it is not clear how it can dictate which units a company can sell, said Aboulafia. “That sounds problematic.”

During his time as chief weapons buyer and deputy secretary of defense, Carter stood firmly behind the idea that market competition is essential to ensure innovation and protect the Defense Department from becoming dependent on monopolies.

But the reality is that big programmatic decisions — like selecting a prime contractor for the F-35 in 2001 and now one for the bomber — unleash market forces that the Pentagon cannot control, said Aboulafia. “Contractors understand this. When the bomber program gets decided, someone is going to be without a seat at the table.”

Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he continues to believe that the Pentagon should carefully review the implications of industry consolidation before allowing mergers. “I support the review of each proposed merger, acquisition, and teaming arrangement on its particular merits, in the context of each individual market and the changing dynamics of that market,” Carter said in written answers to committee questions submitted before his Feb. 4 confirmation hearing.

“I believe the government must be alert for consolidations that eliminate competition or cause market distortions that are not in the department’s best interest,” Carter said. “During my time as the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and the deputy secretary, the department took steps to improve and preserve competition in defense procurements, and I would support the creation or continuation of competitive opportunities.”

For military aircraft manufacturers that want to be viable beyond the coming decade, the bomber is the only game in town. The Air Force has plans to buy a trainer aircraft, and both Boeing and Northrop have announced their intent to develop clean-sheet designs for the competition. The Air Force, however, has said it might choose to buy an existing airplane rather than a new design. The Pentagon also is eyeing a “sixth-generation” fighter, but that program is too far into the future to satisfy the shareholders of whichever company doesn’t get selected to build the bomber. “A sixth-gen fighter is not going to come soon enough to save a military airframe prime that doesn’t get this,” said Aboulafia.

If the Air Force sticks with its goal of buying 80 to 100 bombers, the program could be worth more than $100 billion. The Air Force has championed the bomber as one of its top three acquisition priorities.

In his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said he would support the program. The Air Force, he wrote, “requires a new generation of stealthy, long-range strike aircraft that can operate at great distances, carry substantial payloads, and operate in and around contested airspace.”



Wary of Procurement Mishaps, Air Force Takes Cautious Steps
By Sandra I. Erwin

February 8, 2015


Its aircraft fleet averages 27 years of age and rival nations are rapidly modernizing, but the U.S. Air Force is not rushing to commit to futuristic weapon systems.

The Pentagon’s budget proposal for 2016 seeks more than $48 billion for new aircraft production and upgrades. It is buying airplanes that are either already in production or in late stages of development, including 57 F-35 joint strike fighter jets, 41 logistics support aircraft, 300 helicopters and 53 unmanned aerial vehicles.

These acquisitions will help replenish the Air Force fleet but new aircraft designs are years or decades away. The next major development is a stealth bomber planned for the 2020s. But the Air Force is hitting the pause button on several programs, including a next-generation fighter, a new trainer airplane and a ground surveillance jet. Officials said they are being cautious about committing to new designs at a time when technology is advancing far more rapidly than the military’s procurement decision cycle. They also are resistant to make big wagers on unproven technology during a period of great uncertainty about future threats.

Illustrating the Air Force’s modernization dilemma is the so-called “sixth-generation” fighter that would succeed the fifth-generation F-22 and F-35. The Pentagon has funded research work in the 2016 budget but officials insist the program should not follow the traditional path of military acquisitions. “It’s a concept, and there’s money scattered throughout the budget,” said Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget Maj. Gen. James F. Martin.

As national security threats become more complex and the challenges too unpredictable, a different approach to developing future weapon systems is needed, said Air Force Lt. Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements.

That means a departure from the predictable cycle of replacing an airplane with another airplane. “We’re trying to not jump straight to the idea that we’re going to build a sixth-generation fighter,” Holmes said during a roundtable with reporters at the Pentagon.

For the Air Force, the question is how to ensure “air superiority” in the future, and a new-and-improved stealth fighter might no longer be the answer, he said. “We’re trying to get a feel for what is the requirement for air superiority in the future and look at all the domains and not just jump into another air platform.”

Under the traditional process, the Air Force would conduct an “analysis of alternatives,” or a market study and years later choose an airplane design and begin development. The service wants to do business differently, said Holmes. “We just don’t want to jump straight to the AOA on the next airplane before we’ve looked across the range of ways of doing air superiority in the future. That includes cyber, space systems, ground and maritime. Not just jump straight to an air solution.”

The procurement system was designed for a more foreseeable world, he explained. “With 20-year development programs, by the time you design it and set requirements, by the time you field it, you have to think about what comes next.”

Another concern is how to get ahead of the fast-moving innovation train. Other countries have studied U.S. weaponry and how they are employed, and are now making systems to neutralize U.S. advantages, Holmes said. This is happening “faster than was anticipated,” he added. “The gap between our capability and the capability of potential adversaries is decreasing, and it’s decreasing at an accelerated rate.”

While it is “prudent to think about what comes next,” Holmes said, the military has to avoid the traps of traditional thinking. The tendency is to build a “little bit better F-35 or even a leap ahead F-35 or F-22” rather than “think about the right approach to solve problems.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert shares that view. In a presentation at an Office of Naval Research conference last week, he observed that advanced stealth fighters are not a silver bullet. Holmes said the CNO makes a valid point. “Our analysis says that with modern integrated air defense systems, stealth is necessary but may not be sufficient.”

The military has to be prepared to fight “air against air, air against ground, ground against air,” Holmes said. “You could see an application of swarming autonomous [vehicles] to go target surface-to-air defenses.” If so, he added, “Is it worth the cost to pay for autonomy for something that’s going to blow itself up when it hits a target? There are a lot of things we need to learn.”

The Air Force is reluctant to move forward with some modernization programs until is has more certainty about the state of technology. A case in point is the replacement of the T-38 trainer, a project called T-X. The service initially wanted to keep it simple and choose a trainer aircraft from among a handful of available models flown by countries around the world. But the technical requirements grew more complex in recent years as the Air Force realized it needed more advanced airplanes to train F-22 and F-35 pilots. Companies like Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Textron are working on clean-sheet concepts, and forced the Air Force to question whether it should buy off-the-shelf or gamble on a new design.

Officials are once again scrubbing the T-X requirements and are making it a test case for a new procurement reform initiative called “bending the cost curve.” T-X is years behind schedule but the Air Force is comfortable with the delay because it is allowing program officials to better understand the technology offered in the open market and to capitalize on private investment, Holmes said. The Air Force also is reevaluating the T-X acquisition rules so that proposed aircraft that exceed the baseline requirements without adding cost can get credit in the competition.

The Air Force in this case benefits from putting off contract awards and letting market forces work in its favor. “We think that keeping multiple teams in competition” helps the Air Force, said Holmes. “Having airplanes that are flying puts pressure on developmental airplanes, and having developmental planes puts pressure on airplanes that are flying.”

Doubts about earlier acquisition plans also prompted the Air Force to delay a competition to build a ground surveillance aircraft to replace the aging JSTARS, or joint surveillance target attack radar system. Companies like Boeing, Bombardier and Gulfstream are expected to propose JSTARS concepts built in smaller, commercial airframes that they claim will save the government money both in the procurement and lifecycle support of the aircraft.

Officials for some time had begun to question whether the JSTARS’ intricate sensor suites and electronics could be squeezed into smaller airframes. The Air Force decided to delay the program in order to further investigate the issue. The question is “what’s possible and what’s not,” Holmes said. “When [Air Force officials] looked at the strategy we had built for acquisition, they thought it was risky. The integration challenge may have been understated by some of the proposals. We want to keep the competition longer, it drives the price down.”

A similar path might be followed for the modernization of the AWACS airborne radar plane, Holmes said. “We hope to see how the JSTARS plan goes in the new business approach to how we take sensors and people and put them on a more efficient, cheaper airframe.”



Ash Carter’s Team Taking Shape

By Paul McLeary and Vago Muradian 6:46 p.m. EST February 11, 2015


WASHINGTON — As Ash Carter nears his widely anticipated confirmation to become the next US defense secretary, the team that he will bring with him to the Pentagon is already taking shape.

Carter is expected to tap current Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning as his chief of staff, and US Army Maj. Gen. Ron Lewis, head of Army public affairs, to be his senior military adviser, according to a source familiar with internal deliberations.

Fanning has served in his current capacity since April 2013, and is widely regarded as an up and comer in defense circles.

As undersecretary, Fanning primarily oversees the service’s budget and takes the point position onmatters of space operations, policy and acquisition issues.

Before joining the Air Force’s leadership team, Fanning also served as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and its deputy chief management officer from 2009-2013, where he led the sea service’s business transformation and governance processes.

Fanning “has had a terrific tenure in the Air Force,” said Rebecca Grant, a former Air Force official and president of IRIS Research. “He’s really been able to operate across the full range, including being involved in the difficult budget meetings in the Pentagon” over the past several years, she added.

Grant also noted that the Air Force is facing some weighty issues, such as the long-range bomber program, finding ways to pay for the expensive fleet of F-35s that will soon be making their way down assembly lines and into the operational Air Force, and finding ways to increase — or at least maintain — the current operational posture of its fleet of ISR and strike drones.

The chief of staff commonly assists the secretary with policy deliberations and coordinating interagency matters, among other tasks.

Lewis took over the Army’s public affairs office in June, fresh off a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan having served as the deputy commanding general (support) for the 101st Airborne Division.

A career Air Cavalry officer, Lewis also served a tour in Iraq and an earlier tour in Afghanistan.

Between deployments, Lewis has spent a lot of time at the Pentagon, much of it at Carter’s side, most recently as an adviser on his transition team.

Not counting his role on the transition team, Lewis has already filled the role of military adviser to Carter twice, first as his military assistant when Carter was the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in 2011, and following him to become his senior military assistant when he took over as the deputy secretary of defense until he deployed back to Afghanistan in early 2012.

Lewis also served as the military assistant to the chairman of the Defense Business Board.



Lawmakers talk big cuts for Pentagon budget

By Andrew Tilghman, Staff writer 1:25 p.m. EST February 11, 2015


Big cuts to the Pentagon budget that once would have been unthinkable were openly discussed Wednesday on Capitol Hill as lawmakers summoned a panel of experts to weigh in on the White House’s newly released 2016 defense budget request.

This year’s budget battle will be exceptionally intense because a two-year deal in 2013 that eased the impact of the spending caps known as sequestration will expire when the 2016 fiscal year begins in October.

If lawmakers fail to reach a new agreement to extend that relief, the Defense Department will have to make major across-the-board cuts to planned spending.

That is forcing lawmakers to scrutinize the military budget in search of big-ticket items and lower-priority programs to target.

“The weapons system that we are planning on building right now, we can’t afford,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said at Wednesday’s hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “Something’s got to go.”

The expert witnesses called to testify all had suggestions on how to save money.

“The obvious answer is the F-35,” said Nora Bensahel, a military analyst with American University, referring to the futuristic weapons system slated to replace large parts of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps tactical aircraft fleets.

“That is the procurement program that is eating the defense budget alive,” she said.

She did not advocate scrapping the program, but said the Air Force “doesn’t need as many of them as it says it needs.”

The Navy’s controversial littoral combat ship also came in for blunt criticism. Tom Donnelly, a defense expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said the LCS is “the wrong weapon” that resulted from “bad analysis of mission and needs.”

Several experts agreed that reducing personnel costs, which make up about one-third of the base defense budget, will be central to any long-term plan to reduce Pentagon spending.

They pointed to the new proposals from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which call for reducing the size of the current retirement benefit and offering new contributions to 401(k)-style accounts for troops who leave before reaching the 20-year service milestone.

“They’ve got a sound approach there — it certainly could use some tweaks and improvements from Congress,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.

However, Harrison and others noted that those changes alone will not bring defense spending within the sequestration budget caps mandated under current law and suggested further reductions in personnel costs will require cutting the size of the total force.

Several experts suggested that reducing Army active-duty strength is the least harmful option. But the likely easiest path to that end — shrinking units garrisoned in Europe — is looking less attractive these days in the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

“There are significant choices that can change just in the course of a year,” said Ryan Crotty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggesting lawmakers consider the cost-saving benefits of trimming troop strength in the reserve components and potentially moving important capabilities out of the active-duty military.

“If you are going to start thinking about big cuts, you’re going to have to start thinking about big moves,” Crotty said. “Maybe the cyber mission needs to move out of the active component and into the Guard and reserve.”

Making the right budget cuts will require a fundamental rethinking of how the U.S. military fights wars, the experts said. That means less emphasis on conventional ground forces and short-range tactical aircraft, and more investment in new technologies in areas like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber warfare and long-range guided missiles.

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., criticized his own committee for failing to support the Pentagon’s request for base closures. The top brass wants to shut down dozens of underused military facilities across the country, but lawmakers are resistant to do anything that might hurt jobs and the local economy of their home districts.

“We look incompetent, we look selfish, we look weak,” Cooper said.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said perhaps Congress should consider a “war tax” because the current budget system cannot support the kind of spending that many people want.

“I just don’t think we can continue to go down this road, quite frankly, without a [financial] collapse,” Jones said. “Maybe we need to debate a war tax or some type of taxation to make sure that we are not cheating our defenses from being strong enough to defend this country.”

Behsahel said explaining to the American people why defense spending is important should be a high priority, especially after years of unpopular wars.

“My mother used to say to me, ‘Why can’t we defend the United States for $500 billion a year?’ It’s an excellent question,” she said. “Saying not everything looks like the wars of the past 13 years is an important step.”


Bomber contract could push Northrop into Boeing’s arms

Originally published February 10, 2015 at 6:28 PM | Page modified February 11, 2015 at 7:15 PM

The Air Force award of a major new bomber contract this spring could lead to consolidation among the big three aerospace defense giants. Analyst Richard Aboulafia argues that one likely scenario is that Boeing will buy Northrop’s aerospace unit.

By Dominic Gates

Seattle Times aerospace reporter


When the Pentagon this spring announces who will design and build a major new stealth bomber for the Air Force, the decision will determine Boeing’s future in the combat-aircraft business.

The choice could also reshape the military-industrial base. Top aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said that whatever the outcome, it could precipitate an aggressive move by Boeing, the No. 2 U.S. defense contractor, to acquire the aircraft unit of No. 3 defense player Northrop Grumman.

Boeing has teamed with Lockheed Martin, the top defense contractor, in bidding against Northrop to build up to 100 new-generation long-range strike bombers (LRS-B) that will replace the Air Force’s B-1 and B-52 bombers.

The currently projected cost, not counting classified spending, is $90 billion, or $900 million per airplane.

“If Boeing loses, it won’t be building combat aircraft after 2018 unless it buys Northrop’s aircraft unit,” said Aboulafia, a Teal Group analyst who will address the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance annual conference Wednesday morning in Lynnwood.

“If Boeing wins, Northrop will not be a combat-aircraft prime, and its investors may decide the company is more valuable broken up — in which case Boeing would be the likely buyer for the aircraft unit anyway.”

Besides aerospace, Northrop has distinct and substantial businesses in electronics, information systems and technical services such as supply-chain management.

Details of the government’s requirements for the plane remain top secret. But Pentagon officials have said the aircraft must be able to carry nuclear bombs, and may be designed to fly unmanned when dropping conventional bombs.

Should the Boeing/Lockheed team win, it’s likely Lockheed will do the design and Boeing will build it, Aboulafia said in an interview.

Boeing would probably build the planes in St. Louis, with significant pieces subcontracted around the nation, including potentially to the Puget Sound region.

Boeing built large portions of the B-2 stealth bomber’s wing and aft fuselage in Seattle under a subcontract from Northrop, that program’s winning bidder.

The Boeing jet-fighter production lines in St. Louis, meanwhile, are likely to be shuttered before the end of the decade. So losing the contract would mean “Boeing will exit the combat-aircraft business,” Aboulafia said.


Plenty of cash

Boeing’s leadership, riding record-high share prices and sitting on a $13 billion mountain of cash — eight times as large as Lockheed’s — is unlikely to accept that position.

Aboulafia’s bold thesis is backed by history.

In November 1996, the Pentagon eliminated McDonnell Douglas from the Joint Strike Fighter competition, leaving the company with dim prospects.

Boeing, eager to balance its commercial unit with a defense acquisition, announced just a month later it would buy McDonnell Douglas for $13.3 billion in stock.

The market forces that will come to bear after the LRS-B decision may be even stronger than in 1996.

Pressure on the U.S. defense-procurement budget has increased under the mandatory budget cuts imposed by Congress in the process known as “sequestration.”

Boeing plans $4 billion in cuts on its defense side to cope with the downturn in business.

Ahead, there are few big-money military-airplane contracts. After the LRS-B, defense contractors won’t begin real work on the next prospect, new “sixth-generation” jet fighters, for a decade or more.


LRS-B is by far the biggest prize in sight.

“There’s only going to be one bomber program awarded probably in the next generation,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow specializing in the defense budget for the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent public policy research institute.

“You either win this, or you’re out of the business,” he said. “For both teams, this is a must win.”


Based on public Air Force budgets, Harrison extrapolates the official total program cost at $90 billion, including approximately $24 billion in development costs but excluding any prior “black budget” classified spending.

However, he believes the real cost “will be much higher than that.”

The initial contract will be to produce a limited number of operational aircraft, with the government covering development costs plus a profit for the manufacturer. Only afterward will the terms of a production contract be negotiated.

“It’s exceedingly rare that a program ever comes in anywhere close to its initial cost estimates,” Harrison said.

The government’s last bomber program, the B-2, started out with a requirement for 132 airplanes. Northrop ended up building only 21, so that the unit cost soared to $2 billion per airplane.

Still, it’s unlikely the LRS-B program will be cut down so drastically, since it is designed to replace some 150 aging B-52s and B-1s.

The contest for the bomber is so secret, analysts outside the Pentagon have no idea who is favored.

No one knows for sure what the plane will look like, either, though it is expected to be a triangular “flying wing” shape like the B-2.

Prototypes may already have flown. Trade journal Aviation Week reported on a mysterious triangular “blended wing-body aircraft type” that was photographed over Amarillo, Texas, last March.

Adding to the mystery of what’s coming, the Pentagon has left open an option that the bomber may not be a single platform, but a system of several aircraft.

A government defense analyst, who asked not to be identified because he is not allowed to speak publicly, said that could mean development of an unmanned sensor drone stuffed with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment and command-and-control systems. This drone could potentially direct a separate aircraft that would be nothing but a basic “bomb truck.”


Drone work

Northrop has already developed a possible version of such a drone, called the RQ-180, details of which are still classified. That work could give Northrop an advantage in the bomber competition.

“They have designed a stealthy large aircraft more recently than anyone on the Boeing/Lockheed team,” said the government defense analyst.

The wild card is how much the Pentagon wants to protect the industrial base. It’s clear that while Boeing and Lockheed are healthy companies, Northrop may not survive intact a loss of this contest.

Would the Pentagon accept Boeing absorbing Northrop’s aircraft unit, reducing its prime military-airplane providers from three to two, perhaps with Lockheed exclusively building fighters and Boeing bombers?

The government analyst said the Pentagon has already accepted such virtual monopoly consolidation in the building of U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers.

Both Boeing and Northrop declined to answer questions on the bomber competition.

“We feel we are well positioned for this program in terms of capability and capacity,” said Northrop spokesman Randy Belote.

Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher said the company has “been part of the bomber community from the start of the bomber age” and looks forward to the opportunity provided by LRS-B.


USAF Budget: Hardest Choices Yet to Come

By Aaron Mehta 11:36 a.m. EST February 11, 2015


WASHINGTON — The US Air Force requested $122.2 billion for fiscal 2016, a budget that emphasizes designing the Air Force of the future while addressing current needs.

The budget was crafted to balance the future force with what Maj. Gen. Jim Martin, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget, called the “most urgent combat and commander requirements.”

“It’s a request that’s based on necessity, what we need for today’s readiness in a long-term strategic framework, the capabilities we’ll need in the future,” Martin said. “It also allows us to begin the recovery from three years of operating at reduced funding levels.”

In many ways, it’s an ideal budget. Unfortunately, it’s also an idealized one.

The Air Force budget went about $10 billion over projected budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA), and came with a wide list of programs that may have to be altered or cut if Congress does not change the law, whether by repealing the BCA or through another Ryan-Murray type compromise. This means the biggest question isn’t what’s in the budget today — it’s what the budget will look like later this year.

Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute put the situation this way: “No one knows the final topline number for 2016, including Congress, the White House and the Pentagon. So everything is up in the air.”

She guessed that based on previous agreements, the Air Force could project to get an extra $4 billion to $5 billion over BCA levels in a “Ryan-Murray lite” agreement. That’s significant money, but not nearly enough to fund everything requested.

If BCA funding levels are not raised, in 2016 the service is threatening to cut F-35A procurement by 14 jets, drop the number of space launch procurements by one, cut nine MQ-9 Reaper buys, and potentially cut whole fleets of aircraft like the KC-10 tanker, U-2 spy plane or RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 40.

One system already on the cutting block is the A-10 Warthog, the close air support plane much beloved by soldiers on the ground. The service says it will save $4.2 billion over the future years defense plan if it can retire the jet starting in fiscal 2016, but Congress has resisted in the past and some, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., are already promising to protect the plane this year.

One source with knowledge of Congress said the A-10 decision is already generating blowback, but noted that was expected. Aside from the A-10, however, “there isn’t really much that was controversial in this budget.”

The budget works in the service’s major recapitalization programs, getting second-tier priorities like recapitalization of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and T-X trainer replacement included alongside the three biggest priorities: the F-35 joint strike fighter, Long Range Strike-Bomber and KC-46A tanker.

It also restored the U-2 to the base budget, a flip from last year when the service intended to start early retirement on the high-altitude spy plane.

The real challenge is going to be what happens when, barring a miracle, BCA levels are not raised to what the Air Force wants to see. When that happens, the source warned, expect the cuts to start at the same place they always do.

“Realistically, the flying hours will take a hit again. Readiness accounts, things like that,” the source said, adding that the science and technology accounts could also be vulnerable as technologies like the new ADVENT engine for future aircraft “don’t have clear constituencies and isn’t a game changer today. It’s out in the future.”

Eaglen agreed that the most likely cuts are “a combination of readiness reduction in the near term and procurement cuts, stretching out of buys and slowing down procurement rates in the long term.

“There is nothing new in how the Pentagon will manage what they do when the budgets are decided,” she added.

The source familiar with Congress added that the service simply doesn’t have the horsepower on the Hill to muscle through whole fleet cuts, despite their threats to do so.

“I think the Air Force will make an attempt against a small fleet asset, like the KC-10 or something in that zone, but I don’t think they have the weight to make a retirement really happen. That’s why I think it will default back to readiness.”

A former top US Air Force official expressed frustration that the service’s hands are tied in terms of what can and cannot be touched.

“We would love to retire the A-10, and that’s a multibillion dollar decision, but because of politics we’re not allowed to do that,” he said. “We would love to retire the Global Hawk and keep the U-2, but now we’re going to end up keeping both.”

At the end of the day, he said, “you have so much force structure you have to retain, where do you go for the savings? That’s the problem we’re facing particularly under a sequestered budget.”


ISR and Weapons

While the budget may alter dramatically, it is worth looking at what the service prioritized in its ideal budget request.

Analysts and officials who talked with Defense News all noted that the fiscal 2016 budget request hews closely to what the service sought in the 2015 request. That is no accident, as the service emphasized analysis of various programs and personnel figures before 2015. Abandoning those findings so quickly would be a mistake, the analysts agreed.

That doesn’t mean the budget hasn’t been impacted by real world events. The last budget was formulated at a time when the Pentagon was withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and pivoting toward the Pacific, with potential drawdowns in Europe on the table.

Between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS, the service has found itself flying significantly more operations than it had anticipated. In 2014, the Air Force flew 20,000 close air support and more than 35,000 ISR missions, according to service figures.

The budget reflects that in two main ways: an increase in munitions and an emphasis on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.

Ammunition procurement funds grew from $635 million to just under $1.7 billion in the 2016 request, a jump of more than 150 percent. That is driven largely by the need to procure more air-to-ground munitions, such as the joint direct-attack munition, which are being used regularly in Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS.

That trend continues in the overseas contingency operations (OCO) request. The “blue” OCO funding request comes in at $10.6 billion, down from $12.1 billion in fiscal 2015 enacted. That includes a huge jump in missile procurement, going from $136 million in the 2015 enacted budget to $289 million for the 2016 request.

Weapons, of course, are no good if you don’t know where to put them. When combat operations against ISIS kicked off, experts both inside and outside the Pentagon said this would be a fight that was won or lost based on ISR.

In addition to procuring 29 MQ-9 Reaper units, the service included funding for both the U-2 and Global Hawk, pushing the retirement of the manned U-2 out to 2019 to make sure upgrades to the unmanned Global Hawk are complete.

Keeping both the U-2 and Global Hawk fleets, but spending significantly to upgrade the Global Hawk Block 30 sensor packages, is a big step toward maintaining a high-end ISR fleet, Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said.

“Their decision to maintain and upgrade Global Hawks will pay dividends in the future,” he said. “While some services are still debating what they would like their UAS to do, the Air Force is putting real money behind unmanned systems.”

James Poss, a retired major general and deputy chief of staff for ISR with the US Air Force, supported the focus on ISR, although he cautioned against reading the budget as an unmitigated success for ISR proponents.

“The budget isn’t plussing-up ISR. It’s more just not cutting it as heavily” as other sectors, Poss said.

He, too, praised the decision to keep the U-2, even if just for a few more years.

“Pushing the retirement date of the U-22 to 2019 gives us a good chance to make sure we have all the risk bought out of the [Global Hawk] system, because those high-altitude aircraft are absolutely vital when going against an adversary which can shoot back, when you need that standoff range to find his defenses,” Poss said.


Mattel’s View-Master gets a Google VR makeover

The stereoscopic toy leaps into the 21st century as Google scopes out uses for its Cardboard virtual-reality tech.

by Ben Fox Rubin

/February 13, 2015 6:05 AM PST


Google and Mattel on Friday unveiled a new View-Master toy infused with virtual-reality technology.

The Internet search giant and the toymaker plan to use Google’s Cardboard virtual-reality platform to offer virtual reality, augmented reality and “photospheric” images, using a smartphone as the display inside a plastic View-Master casing.

“We view this as just the beginning,” said Doug Wadleigh, a Mattel executive, adding that Google and Mattel will be testing and learning as they continue their partnership.

The companies plan to come out with the product in October, in time for the holiday season.

View-Master, a binocular-shaped Mattel toy created decades ago, was used to give kids 3D-like images by flipping through its picture reels. Early details of the new product are available at

For Mattel, the struggling maker of Barbie and Fisher-Price toys, the partnership could be a much-needed boost. The company has been posting softer revenue in recent quarters, while rivals Hasbro and Lego have been able to grow their sales even while more kids are using tablets and smartphones for games. Amid the difficulty, Mattel’s CEO stepped down last month.


Google has been a major player in augmented reality and virtual reality lately, last year unveiling the cheap, do-it-yourself virtual reality kit called Cardboard, which it has continued to develop with additional features and apps. Earlier this week, South Korean electronics maker LG unveiled a new promotion that offers a virtual-reality headset based on Cardboard — the VR for G3 — for free for new buyers of its G3 flagship smartphone.

Google’s Glass wearable headset project has faced a bumpier start, with government officials asking about privacy issues and Google eventually taking the product off the market, at least temporarily.

Those products are just one part of a growing list of virtual-reality and augmented-reality products being created, as tech firms work to add new technologies into those previously unrealized markets. The intent of virtual reality is to provide an immersive experience for gaming or other applications, while augmented reality offers an overlay of the real world to provide extra information for the user.


Catapult-Launched Bat Drone Wages Electronic War

By Allen McDuffee

11.18.13 |


Small, tactical drones may have a new role in military strikes after Northrop Grumman’s catapult-launched Bat demonstrated an electronic attack capability for the first time in new tests.

With its 12-foot wingspan, the low-flying Bat, which maxes out at 70 miles per hour, was able to jam radar during tests. That means the Pentagon will soon have the option of deploying a flexible, largely undetectable drone with radar-jamming capability to protect manned aircraft against radar and surface-to-air missile guidance systems.

“Bat continues to demonstrate capabilities that can normally only be achieved by larger, more expensive unmanned aircraft,” said George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of Medium Range Tactical Systems, in a statement. “Our customers now have a more mobile and affordable option for electronic warfare missions.”

The tests, involving other unmanned and fixed-wing aircraft, took place last month at the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One Weapons and Tactics Instructor event at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, according to Northrop Grumman.

While the Bat has been in operation for some time, it has remained a surveillance vehicle until now. Northrop integrated its Pandora electronic attack payload — a lightweight, low-cost derivative of the company’s family of APR-39 systems — on the Bat in less than two months.

According to Northrop, the Bat was a good candidate because of its price point, larger payload volume given its size and its ability to accept different-size fuel tanks and sensor payloads.

Bat is a runway-independent and fully autonomous vehicle that launches from a hydraulic rail launcher at sea or land and recovers into a portable net system.










Leaked FAA Document Provides Glimpse Into Drone Regulations

Gregory S. McNeal

February 14, 2015

Forbes Contributor


The FAA appears poised to release regulations that will impose a minimal burden on businesses, paving the way for integration of drones into the national airspace.  Information about the forthcoming regulations is contained in an inadvertently published document that appears to be an FAA economic analysis of the long awaited regulations for small drones.  In no uncertain terms, the purported FAA economic analysis assumes that drones provide great social and economic benefits, will save lives, and can be integrated into the national airspace with minimal risk while providing benefits that far outweigh their costs.

Less burdensome regulations and a recognition of the benefits of drones is a reversal from what many observers (including me) believed the FAA would do.  The economic analysis suggests that the forthcoming regulations may allow for many beneficial drone uses across a variety of industries.  The analysis also indicates that ensuring that the potential of drones can be realized will be a key driver behind the final regulations.

Steve Zeets a professional land surveyor who filed a petition for an exemption from FAA rules last year downloaded the document from  Zeets works with EZAg, an agricultural company and Terraplane, LLC, a company that wants to use drones for GIS, surveying, engineering, and photogrammetry — his specialties.  Zeets was on the federal government website checking for an update to his petition for an exemption when he came across the economic analysis “The exemptions they have been approving were submitted around the same time mine was,” Zeets said, “so I was figuring mine would be approved any day now.”  As he scrolled through the exemptions he came across the economic analysis and opened the 89 page report.

“Once I opened the document, I called a colleague. He went to the website while we were still on the phone and couldn’t find the document. I still had it open so I saved a copy to pdf.”  It seemed that the document was taken down almost immediately, and what Zeets didn’t know was that he may have been the only person in the world to have been in the right place at the right time, able to download the inadvertently uploaded document before it was taken down by an unknown government official.

Initially Zeets didn’t realize the significance of the report, so he decided to share it with others through social media.  I figured that someone else had to have seen the document, so I started watching Twitter
TWTR +1.15% for any chatter and didn’t see anything.”  He then began reading the document and realized the significance of what he held.  Based on the document, Zeets feels the FAA is moving towards a common sense approach to regulations.  The regulations they talked about in that document mirrored a lot of what my exemption was requesting” said Zeets, “I know the final rules won’t be out for a while, because they have to get public comments. But, if my exemption is approved with similar limitations to what is proposed in that document, then we will start offering our services almost immediately after our exemption is approved.”

Looking at the document and seeing what the FAA was planning, Zeets knew that others needed to see the report.  It was at that point that Zeets decided to upload the document to his Drive.  I sent the link to sUAS News to ask if they had seen it too,” Zeets said, “But shortly after I sent the Tweets my phone battery died. When I woke up this morning and plugged my phone in, I saw a lot of Tweets about the documents and people asking for the source. At that moment I realized that no one else saw the document on the website.”

The report Zeets published provides insights into what the FAA considered and rejected while crafting regulations for small drones (those weighing less than 55 pounds, also known as sUAS).  The reportsuggests that the FAA will adopt a regulatory approach far more favorable to the operation of drones than many expected.  According to the report the FAA has decided to adopt a “minimally burdensome rule” for drones.  In fact the term “minimal regulatory burden” or a variant thereof is a key theme throughout the document.  If the economic analysis ends up reflecting a true assessment of the proposed rule, many drone advocates will be very happy with the FAA and their decision to regulate the lowest-risk small UAS operations by imposing a minimal regulatory burden on those operations.

The FAA may be poised to release regulations that will please many drone advocates — at least that’s what a document that appears to be an FAA economic analysis of the long awaited regulations for small drones suggests.

A small note of caution: As stated earlier, the document appears to be the economic analysis of the proposed sUAS rule.  The document is dated February 2015 and is captioned “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regulatory Evaluation, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems” authored by George Thurston of the Office of Aviation Policy and Plans, Economic Analysis Division.  But, it’s possible this is a leaked early draft that has since been revised or is otherwise incomplete or inaccurate.  With that caveat lector disclaimer out of the way:

Here are 9 key takeaways regarding how the proposed FAA regulations will handle drones:

The FAA believes drones provide great social and economic benefits. The agency admits that drones provide significant societal benefits, and that the social benefits will continue to increase as entrepreneurs enter the drone marketplace.  The agency noted that if the use of a small drone replaces a dangerous, non-drone operation and saves even one human life, that savings alone would result in benefits outweighing the expected costs of the integration of drones into the national airspace.  Specifically, the agency found that integrating small drones into the national airspace will have an economic impact of greater than $100 million per year in benefits.  The FAA sees great upside potential in aerial photography, precision agriculture, search and rescue/law enforcement and bridge inspection (specifically noting the nearly 45,000 bridge inspections that could be conducted by drones each year).    The agency estimated that at a mere $5 per acre of cost reduction, drones in precision agriculture could produce billions of dollars per year in cost savings.  For operators that can’t afford to purchase their own drone or train their personnel to operate them, there will be a market for end users to seek contracted small UAS services (full disclosure, as of a February 12th, I began collaborating with Measure, a company that provides drone services on a contract basis).

Drones will save lives.  The FAA assumes drones will provide safety benefits by allowing the substitution of drones for operations that pose a higher level of public risk.  Climbers working on towers have a fatality rate that is 10 times that of construction workers, and drones can help to reduce those fatalities.  For example, 95 climbers working on cell and other towers died between 2004 and 2012.  If drones had been available for those inspections, those fatalities could have been avoided.  The FAA believes that drones will become a safer and less costly substitute for manned aerial photography, will enable safer operations than manned aircraft for agricultural purposes, and will allow quicker responses in search and rescue and disaster relief operations.  The FAA reviewed accident data related to aerial aviation photography and found that out of 17 accidents, a drone could have substituted for the manned operation in two cases — both cases could have ended in fatalities, and could have been performed by a drone.

The FAA will not require a commercial pilot certificate for drone operations.  The FAA considered requiring drone pilots to obtain a commercial pilot certificate, have a Class II medical certificate,  pass an aeronautical knowledge test, and demonstrate flight proficiency and aeronautical experience before a certified flight instructor.  The FAA determined that drones pose a low level of pubic risk and that imposing all of those requirements would be unduly burdensome.  Instead, the FAA will require an operator to pass an aeronautical knowledge test before obtaining an unmanned aircraft operator certificate, and that knowledge test will need to be taken at a certified testing site in person.  On-line testing was rejected due to concerns about the integrity of the test, and the possibility that personally identifiable information might be at risk through on-line test taking.  The FAA believes that the cost of obtaining a small UAS operator certificate will be less than $300 and the operator will be required to pass a recurrent test every 24 months and undergo vetting by the TSA.  The FAA will not require flight school and believes that little preparation would be necessary for applicants with an existing pilot certification.

The FAA decided to accommodate all types of drone businesses by adopting the least complex set of regulations across all sizes and categories of drones.   In pursuit of that goal, the FAA determined that segmenting drones into different categories based on weight, operational characteristics, and operating environment was too complex and burdensome for the public and the FAA.  By treating all small drones as a single category without airworthiness certification, the FAA believes they can accommodate a large majority of small drone businesses and other non-recreational users .  The FAA concluded that their single category rule will mitigate risk while imposing the least amount of burden to businesses and other non-recreational users of even the smallest drones.  While the FAA considered a “micro UAS” subcategory of drones — the micro drone rule proposed by the UAS America Fund —  they ultimately decided that the micro drone proposal should be treated as a comment to the FAA’s rulemaking, rather than as the separate petition that it was filed as.

The FAA considered, but rejected onerous inspection, maintenance and permitting requirements for drones.   The agency determined that such requirements were not proportionate to the risk posed by small drones.  The FAA specifically noted that the light weight of drones versus manned aircraft means that drones pose significantly lower risk to people and property on the ground.  As such, the FAA believes that inspection and maintenance of small drones pursuant to existing FAA regulations would not result in significant safety benefits.  While inspection, maintenance, and permitting requirements will not be required, the FAA notes that statutory constraints will require unmanned aircraft to be registered.  Registration fees will cost $5, and will need to be renewed every three years.

The FAA will require drones to be operated within line of sight of the operator, rejecting technology as a substitute for an operator’s sense and avoid responsibilities.   The FAA considered whether technological means could serve as a substitute for the operator’s see-and-avoid responsibilities, for example by utilizing onboard cameras.  The agency believed that technology has not yet advanced to the point where it could be miniaturized and used on board a small drone.  Specifically, the FAA found that no acceptable technological substitute for direct human vision in small UAS operations exists at this time.  Perhaps they missed the Intel announcement at CES — no doubt this will come up in the comments to the NPRM.

Drone flights will need to take place between sunrise and sunset.  Regulators considered allowing drone flights after sunset, as it would allow for a greater number of drone operations in the national airspace.  However, because such flights would take place at low altitudes it would increase risks to persons on the ground.  Mitigating those risks would require equipment and certification that would run contrary to the FAA’s goal of a minimally burdensome rule.

Drone flights will need to be below 500 feet.   Fearing the risk to manned aircraft operations above 500 feet, and recognizing that flights at that altitude would require greater levels of operator training, aircraft equipment, and aircraft certification, the FAA rejected the idea of allowing flights above 500 feet because the goal of the sUAS rule is to regulate the lowest-risk small UAS operations while imposing a minimal regulator burden on those operations.

Less burdensome rules mean more people will comply with the rules, decreasing enforcement costs.  The FAA believes that their proposed rule will not increase enforcement costs because the legal standards will result in increased compliance by operators.  Moreover, the clearer simplified standards will reduce the uncertainty associated with drone operations, reducing the likelihood of enforcement litigation (because litigation is more likely when the parties disagree as to which legal standards are applicable to an operation and how those standards apply to the operation).

The assumptions made by the FAA in their economic analysis seem to indicate that their first stab at regulating the drone industry will be a success.  Many commentators (including this one) will be pleasantly surprised if the regulations match the views in the purported economic analysis of the proposed regulations.


Ramussen Reports

What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls

Bottom of Form

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Words, words, words. Words make a difference. Take “net neutrality.”

It sounds good, right? After all, it’s “neutral,” and supporters, including President Obama and the Democratic majority on the Federal Communications Commission, say it will ensure that the Internet remains a level playing field. But critics who include congressional Republicans say net neutrality is really just a cover for government control of the Internet, and they don’t like where that leads.

Most Americans approve of the FCC’s regulation of radio and TV, but far fewer think the FCC should have the same regulatory power over the Internet.   Most still believe the best way to protect those who use the Internet is more free market competition rather than more government regulation.

After all, Americans continue to give high marks to their online service even as the government insists that regulatory control will make it better.

Words also brought down NBC News evening anchor Brian Williams who was caught in a lie about his experiences during the invasion of Iraq. Americans tend to think Williams hurt NBC’s credibility and agree with the decision to drop him from the evening news.

Fewer Americans are getting their news predominately from television anyway, and they trust the news they are getting less than they did a year ago.

Speaking of words, the president caused an uproar the other day in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast when he equated atrocities by the radical Islamic group ISIS with past sins of Christianity. But a plurality of voters agrees with what he said.

That doesn’t mean voters are letting Muslims off the hook. Seventy-five percent (75%) agree that Islamic religious leaders need to do more to emphasize the peaceful beliefs of their faith, and 52% believe Islam as practiced today encourages violence more than most other religions.

Most Americans say their religious faith is important in their daily lives  and think this nation would be better off if people practiced their faith more often.

The president this week asked Congress to authorize more military force against ISIS up to and including the use of combat troops, but are most Americans willing to go that far?

Also on the speaking front, the president proposed $74 billion in new spending in his State of the Union address last month, and Republicans predictably said, no way. But it appears Democrats weren’t strongly persuaded either

Congress at week’s end sent a bill to the president calling for construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline from western Canada to Texas, but Obama has vowed to veto it. Voters wish he wouldn’t.

Voters also remain opposed to the president’s decision to give amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.

Keep a close eye on our Daily Presidential Tracking Poll and our Consumer/Investor Index that measures daily confidence in both groups. They all fell back this week from beginning-of-the-year highs, but it’s too soon to tell if that’s a trend in the making.

Republicans have inched ahead on the latest Generic Congressional Ballot.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi remain the best-known and least-liked leaders in Congress. Voters continue to overwhelmingly favor term limits for members of Congress.

In other surveys last week:

— Thirty-four percent (34%) of Likely U.S. Voters think the country is heading in the right direction. The number of voters who think the country is heading in the right direction has been 30% or higher for the last seven weeks after being in the mid- to high 20s most weeks since mid-June 2013.

Medical professionals strongly support vaccinations for children and say there is no scientific evidence that they do more harm than good. But what does America think?

— A commercial airliner landing in Los Angeles last weekend reported a near miss with an unmanned drone, the latest of such incidents to make the news. With more and more drones flying, voters are becoming a lot more concerned about air safety.

— Most voters oppose criminalizing smoking and growing marijuana in the privacy of one’s home.

Is it love or is it Valentine’s Day? Most Americans aren’t planning anything very special to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

— If a black cat crosses your path, what do you do? Do you walk under ladders? How superstitious is the average American?

Beware of Friday the 13th?



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