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Tiny aircraft slated to fly over Oklahoma during DHS drone tryouts

Flickr use Hervé Corcia

The Homeland Security Department plans to test an unspecified number of small drones in Oklahoma for at least five days, in preparation for providing the technology to local governments, according to research solicitation documents.

The trial follows the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to select test sites for launching remotely piloted aircraft in advance of opening domestic airspace to commercial vehicles in 2015. Drone manufacturers have been awaiting word from FAA on the locations since August, which was the statutory deadline for making the selections.

Industry advocates say unmanned aircraft can safely share the skies with passenger planes to support stateside public safety missions. During the upcoming tryouts, DHS intends to gauge whether drones can fly in "realistic and relevant real-world operational scenarios, such as law enforcement operations, search and rescue, and fire and hazardous material spill response,” the documents stated.

The department also wants to examine the security of the systems. Officials will measure each aircraft's ability to fly safely when communications are lost between the drone and the pilot on the ground.

The vehicles must weigh less than 25 pounds, according to the papers, which invite vendors to apply for test runs. Chosen companies must cover the cost of delivering "technically mature, flight-proven vehicles and their fully integrated sensors for evaluation,” DHS officials said.

The objective is to find drones with electro-optical, infrared, chemical, biologicial and radiological sensors. At a minimum, the participating drones will carry electro-optical and infrared instruments. The planes will be launched by hand, bungee cord or catapult.

Rotary-wing drones taking part must be able to last in the air for at least 30 minutes and optimally an hour. They will be required to fly one to three miles at dash speeds of 10 miles per hour and preferably 30 miles per hour.

Fixed-wing drones should be able to sustain flight for at least 30 minutes, but preferably for two hours or longer. They must be able to fly three to six miles, ideally at speeds of 40 miles per hour.

Interested drone makers will submit papers describing their vehicles’ flight experience, safety performance and current capabilities, according to the solicitation. Each company will be given five days to practice in the field before the tryouts. The results of the evaluations will not be made public.

Applications are due Oct. 31. The documents do not state when the finalists will be notified or the dates the trials will occur.

Homeland Security and the state of Oklahoma are finalizing an agreement for the tryouts to take place at the Fort Sill test range. Officials said the Army facility provides a suitable environment for mimicking "first responder, law enforcement and border security scenarios."  DHS maintains a separate fleet of about 10 drones for expeditions along the northern and southern borders, as well as coastal waters.

Privacy advocates are wary of drones’ surveillance powers, especially the furtive scouting by tiny aircraft.

In September, a Washington man lost control of a camera-carrying model drone and later found it atop an apartment building in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. The episode somewhat sidelined a game of dueling drones a Brookings Institution researcher had been planning for the district. A blog entry by Brookings senior fellow Benjamin Wittes prompted FAA, which was following his posts, to contact the owner of the rogue vehicle. Realizing FAA was reading his observations, Wittes wondered online whether his “Drone Smackdown” was legal. The shout out to FAA resulted in an agency inspector requesting that Wittes move the battle outside Washington, which is a flight-restricted zone.

The contest winners demonstrated another concern some critics have raised about remotely piloted aircraft -- their susceptibility to hacking. The triumphant players hijacked their opponents’ control panel. 

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