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Thu, Dec 22, 2005

Border UAVS May Not Be All They're Cracked Up To Be

AOPA Cites High Operating Costs, May Conflict With Existing GA Traffic

The cost of operating unmanned aerial vehicles along the border may not be a good idea for a few reasons, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) -- and one of those reasons has little to do with the UAVs' impact on general aviation.

In testimony last week before a hearing looking into the feasibility of UAV patrols along the US-Mexico border, Rep. Bennie Thompson received a surprising answer to a simple question: are UAVs cheaper to fly than comparable manned aircraft?

Not necessarily, according to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner. According to his written testimony, one UAV requires a crew of up to 20 support personnel. In fact, the operating cost is more than double that of a manned aircraft.

The Hermes UAV, for example, costs $1,351 per flight hour to operate, while a Cessna 182 with one pilot would be about $200 an hour. And while a UAV offers the ability to remain in the air for up to 20 hours, its usefulness is limited by cloud cover, icing, and thunderstorms -- as is a Cessna's.

As has been reported in Aero-News, UAV proponents along the border have stressed the cost/benefit angle, stating the unmanned vehicles keep Border Patrol officers away from harm while offering operating costs comparable to the Patrol's current fleet of aircraft.

And then, of course, is the potential impact UAVS may have on current general aviation traffic. AOPA has been advocating a "seamless integration" of UAVs, fearing that they may not mix well with existing general aviation aircraft already using the airspace.

AOPA has been raising those concerns with members of Congress, including Thompson, who is the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

"In all of our interactions with federal officials, including AOPA's representation on the RTCA UAV special committee, we have insisted that unmanned aerial vehicles must not have a negative impact on general aviation operations," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "They should be certified to the same level of safety as piloted aircraft and should reliably sense and avoid other aircraft."

AOPA has also opposed creating restrictive airspace for UAV operations. A 15 nautical mile-wide TFR along the US southern border, for example, would impact more than 100 airports, more than 1,300 based aircraft, and nearly 750,000 annual general aviation flight operations.

FMI: www.aopa.org, www.cbp.gov

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