The Air Force has met resistance from the FAA in approving the restricted training airspace for unmanned aircraft operations in Grand Forks, ND. The Air Force, one of the largest operators of unmanned aircraft, is seeking a 35-mile by 45-mile area set aside for training crews of the Predator and the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. According to Air Force officials, the next two years will see the primary mission at Grand Forks Air Base shift to operation of unmanned aircraft.
The military routinely operate unmanned aircraft in the same airspace as manned combat aircraft overseas, but FAA regulations require unmanned aircraft operations to receive a conditional waiver. These waivers are granted on a case by case basis. According to military officials, however, a waiver does not meet their need for dedicated training airspace. The demand for unmanned aircraft is growing faster than they can train crews and without dedicated training airspace, this is unlikely to improve.
The Pentagon and FAA have taken some flak during a field hearing in Grand Forks where Sen. Byron Dorgan questioned reporting time lines and the deployment of unmanned aircraft to a location where training cannot be performed. According to an FAA official, there are concerns about unmanned aircraft avoiding collisions with civilian aircraft. The FAA is seeking the support of groups in the civilian aviation industry before opening airspace to unmanned aircraft. The hope of this hearing is to expedite resolutions on the issue so that crew training can begin.