Unmanned Aircraft in the National Airspace System


conflicts, but also hints at a problem inherent in ground control of airborne assets: latency. As the separation between controller and aircraft grows, the more latency is introduced into the system.
Rapidly decreasing latency may be the key advantage of UAS v. manned aircraft. Citing ATLC capabilities of UAS, Linden S. Blue, Vice Chairman of General Atomics and former USAF pilot explains, “A pilot on approach is [constantly correcting and] making inputs. The best pilots can make about four control inputs per second. That’s pretty good; that’s a real hot stick. Our aircraft make twenty-six corrections per second, and we are only getting faster.”47

Although onboard latency may be a distinct advantage of UAS in micro aircraft control, macro air traffic control latency must be added to onboard latency to arrive at total system latency. The topic of latency invariably leads to technical discussions regarding the value of a pilot in the loop between controller and aircraft. While collocating en route pilots and controllers may be a possibility in NextGen 2.0+, this leap is not yet apparent around the technological water cooler for NextGen. Eliminating one with the other may also be a long term solution that warrants some discussion. If the latency between controller and pilot can be decreased by eliminating pilot or controller, UAS industry leaders and engineers likely will investigate the possibility.


47 Linden S. Blue, personal interview, December 17, 2011.


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles by author David Cain, examining the introduction of unmanned aircraft (commonly known as drones) into a national airspace system that was developed during the early development of commercial aviation. Please check back periodically for additional articles, which will continue the analysis and discussion. Whether a pilot, passenger or person on the ground, the addition of this technology to our skies, and all the uses for which it may be implemented, has the potential to change our day-to-day existence in ways as significant as the development of the airlines from the early days of barnstorming to their present worldwide network providing reliable transportation for people and goods; as the beginnings of space exploration to today’s reliance on GPS navigation; and as the kludgy days of personal computing evolved to daily reliance on the commercial Internet.