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.