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Air National Guard wants to start flying MQ-9 Reaper drones from Syracuse’s Hancock Airport

Ryan Delaney
WRVO News File Photo
MQ-9 Reaper aircraft.

The Air National Guard wants to fly remotely piloted aircraft out of Hancock Field at the Syracuse International Airport. The change would save time and money, as the National Guard has to send its aircraft to fly from Fort Drum because of airspace restrictions.

Speaking at at an unmanned aircraft system conference at the Turning Stone Resort last week, Col. Mike Smith, assistant vice commander of the Hancock Field Air National Guard, said they want to start flying MQ-9 Reapers out of the Syracuse International Airport for flight training. The Air National Guard cannot launch these aircraft from Hancock Field right now, because the planes would have to go through civilian airspace.  But they are in talks with the F.A.A. to get that changed. Smith said they currently have to send flight and maintenance crews on a daily basis from Syracuse to Fort Drum to launch aircraft.

"It will reduce the daily operational risk of traveling back and forth and it will also save over a million dollars a year in taxpayer money," Smith said.

When aircraft takeoff from Fort Drum and reach a certain altitude, pilots and sensor operators at Hancock Field take over the controls.

Smith highlighted their safety record. For the past five years, the U.S. Air Force's MQ-9s had 2.3 accidents per 100,000 flying hours with no deaths from the accidents. One drone did crash into Lake Ontario in November of 2013.

“We stay in the community, we serve in the community," Smith said. "It’s important for us to get our message out on what we do, we operate them safely and we gain the confidence in what our operations are.” 

Smith said they now have to develop a ground-based sense and avoid radar system that will prevent aircraft collision. He hopes they can begin testing that plan in January 2016. None of the aircraft that would fly out of Syracuse would have weapons on them. The Air National Guard would still use Fort Drum for aircraft with weapons training. For years, people who are against the military use of unmanned drones have protested at Hancock Airport.

You cannot fly a drone commercially without a special license from the F.A.A. which they first started issuing in 2014. Now more than 1,500 companies and individuals have exemptions for unmanned aerial systems or U.A.S. and people in the industry want to see that trend continue. Larry Brinker, is the executive director of the Northeast U.A.S. Airspace Integration Research Alliance which held the industry days conference at Turning Stone.

"The whole notion of having the ability to fly U.A.S commercially is the most important aspect of this because that is how this industry is going the grow: the civil and commercial use," Brinker said.

U-A-S industry professionals met at a conference last week at the Turning Stone Resort and discussed the untapped benefits that drones will bring to society. As the technology improves, industry people hope regulations will allow drones to be flown beyond the line-of-sight and above congested areas. They say this could improve everything from disaster response to farming to pipeline inspections.  

Lisa Ellman is an attorney who co-chairs her law firm’s global Unmanned Aircraft Systems Practice Group and she also attended the conference. She said to achieve the greatest benefits of drones; the F.A.A. would have to authorize commercial use of drones over congested areas and beyond the line-of-sight.

"Everything from disaster response in congested areas to precision agriculture and pipeline inspection beyond line-of-vision," Ellman said.

Ellman said New York is doing the research and development, such as collision avoidance and geo-fencing technology, which will address the privacy and safety concerns people have with drones. A study from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says the industry could double its employment and economic impact in New York State by next year.  

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.