Drone Testing Could Be Coming to Your State

The FAA is getting ready to launch test sites in six states to help clear the way for commercial drones.

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush May 14, 2013 in the Atlantic Ocean.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Dec. 30, 2013, 7:29 a.m.

The Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced six test sites Monday where re­search­ers will de­vel­op and fly un­manned drones, tak­ing a huge step to­ward the even­tu­al na­tion­al in­teg­ra­tion of UAVs in­to com­mer­cial air­space.

The agency just barely beat a dead­line to award con­tracts for the test sites by the end of 2013, a 10-month se­lec­tion pro­cess that in­cluded choos­ing among 25 pro­pos­als from 24 states.

The test sites are as geo­graph­ic­ally, cli­mat­ic­ally, and func­tion­ally di­verse as the po­ten­tial uses for com­mer­cial drones. They are:

  • Uni­versity of Alaska, chosen for “de­vel­op­ment of a set of stand­ards for un­manned air­craft cat­egor­ies, state mon­it­or­ing, and nav­ig­a­tion” as well as drone safety stand­ards

  • State of Nevada, chosen to “look at how air traffic con­trol pro­ced­ures will evolve with the in­tro­duc­tion of [drones] in­to the civil en­vir­on­ment”

  • New York’s Griff­iss In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port, chosen to “work on de­vel­op­ing test and eval­u­ation as well as veri­fic­a­tion and val­id­a­tion pro­cesses un­der FAA safety over­sight” and to re­search drone “sense and avoid cap­ab­il­it­ies” and how to in­teg­rate them in­to “con­ges­ted, north­east air­space”

  • North Dakota De­part­ment of Com­merce, chosen to de­vel­op drone “air­wor­thi­ness es­sen­tial data and val­id­ate high re­li­ab­il­ity link tech­no­logy”

  • Texas A&M Uni­versity (Cor­pus Christi), chosen to “de­vel­op sys­tem safety re­quire­ments for [drone] vehicles and op­er­a­tions”

  • Vir­gin­ia Tech, chosen to con­duct “fail­ure mode test­ing and identi­fy and eval­u­ate op­er­a­tion­al and tech­nic­al risk areas”

It’s worth not­ing that these an­nounced sites have noth­ing to do with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s pre-Cy­ber Monday me­dia coup, which promp­ted a fevered na­tion­al de­bate about po­ten­tial drone use in the near fu­ture. The FAA re­leased a road map earli­er this year out­lining its goals for test­ing drone in­teg­ra­tion in­to com­mer­cial air­space, and FAA Ad­min­is­trat­or Mi­chael Huerta prom­ised to award the con­tracts by the end of the year.

Huerta in­sists the agency will meet a Septem­ber 2015 dead­line to in­teg­rate drones in­to na­tion­al air­space. The FAA has missed sev­er­al con­gres­sion­ally man­dated dead­lines on this is­sue, however, so all the buzz about Amazon’s drone de­liv­ery as­pir­a­tions could have promp­ted the agency to put more em­phas­is on meet­ing this dead­line.

Mi­chael To­scano, pres­id­ent of the As­so­ci­ation for Un­manned Vehicle Sys­tems In­ter­na­tion­al, called the an­nounce­ment an “im­port­ant mile­stone on the path to­ward un­lock­ing the po­ten­tial of un­manned air­craft.”

“The FAA has taken an im­port­ant step to­ward re­cog­niz­ing the in­cred­ible eco­nom­ic and job-cre­ation po­ten­tial this tech­no­logy brings,” To­scano said in a state­ment. His or­gan­iz­a­tion pro­jects that drone tech­no­logy could gen­er­ate 100,000 jobs and add $82 bil­lion to the eco­nomy in the first dec­ade of in­teg­ra­tion.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates re­main con­cerned about po­ten­tially in­vas­ive uses of drone tech­no­logy. Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, D-Mass., has called for fed­er­al pri­vacy pro­tec­tions to be im­ple­men­ted be­fore the in­dustry lifts off in the com­ing years.

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