Feds recruit private sector to expand drone use

By Steve Peacock

The federal government’s expanded use of drones over U.S. airspace for “humanitarian assistance and homeland security” purposes soon will receive a boost of assistance from the private sector.

A cadre of contracted “subject-matter experts” will help devise national policies and procedures governing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

In order to “facilitate the safe expansion” of the Obama administration’s domestic drone deployment, the U.S. Air Force Safety Center, or AFSC, will outsource to industry the assembling of this expert crew, according to a Sources Sought document that WND discovered via routine database research.

The release of a formal Request for Proposals to provide those services is imminent.

A recent amendment to the procurement – known as the RPA Advisory & Assistance Services initiative – indicates that the bid request will be made public this week.

The AFSC’s Remote Piloted Aircraft, or RPA, Safety Branch, which oversees “safety policy, global mishap prevention strategies and processes,” said the outsourcing of this “safety expertise” will play a critical role in integrating drones into the National Airspace System.

The endeavor also will enable the Department of Defense to execute its plan to establish 65 regional drone Combat Air Patrols, while additionally providing “functional safety capabilities in support” of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom missions, the solicitation said.

Helping to clear a backlog of RPA cases under investigation at the Air Force Central Command and the Air Combat Command also falls within the purview of this procurement.

The department intends to hire a single prime contractor – which must be a U.S. firm –responsible for filling several subject-matter expert positions. According to a Summary of Required Services document, approximately seven analysts and engineers will comprise the RPA safety crew.

Positions slated to be created for the expert drone cadre include an “operations research analyst” and an “airspace/air traffic control expert.” Those contractors will interact with representative of the major military commands and the Federal Aviation Agency generally to help safely expand drone operations in U.S. airspace.

A pair of “systems safety engineers” and a “human factors expert” specifically will be tasked with analyzing “aviation safety trends,” involving evaluations of existing “mishap reports and data.” The document did not include statistics revealing the extent of such drone “mishaps.” Those experts also will coordinate safety efforts with other unmanned aerial system – or UAS– users, both governmental and non-governmental, “to identify common problem areas and share potential technical solutions.”

Among those other entities is the Electronic Systems Center, or ESC, a key Air Force unit responsible for many Defense-wide military command and control projects around the globe. ESC, headquartered at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, oversees “some of America’s most valuable defense assets.”

Those assets include the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or Joint STARS, whose primary mission “is to provide theater ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting that contributes to the delay, disruption and destruction of enemy forces.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Research and Engineering, known as MITRE Corp., was identified in the document as a non-governmental partner with whom the engineers would work. MITRE, for example, later this year will host a panel meeting on behalf of the Office of the Secretary of Defense to explore UAS “sense and avoid, or SAA, science and research.”

The defense secretary’s office, in a Request for Information on SAA data, acknowledged that “a key challenge to integrating UAS into the National Airspace System is a means for UAS to sense and avoid other aircraft.” The meeting will take place Nov. 14-15 at MITRE’s McLean, Va., facility, where the Office of the Secretary of Defense will lead an assessment of “ongoing science and research initiatives.”

The gathering also will seek to identify “areas where industry and the research community desires government guidance.”

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