The integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – popularly known as “drones” – into the national airspace took a major step forward last week with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) selection of six regional research test sites. From a pool of 25 applicants representing 24 states, the FAA announced on December 30, 2013 its selection of proposals submitted by the University of Alaska, the State of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport (Rome, NY), the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
The six sites will research and test all aspects of UAS operations, including system safety and data gathering, aircraft certification, command and conflict link issues, layout and certification of control stations, ground and airborne “sense and avoid” capabilities, and environmental impacts. The sites were chosen to collect data from diverse geographic and climatic locations around the nation. With the information generated from these sites, the FAA will develop policies and regulations for allowing unmanned aircraft to operate in the same airspace as manned commercial and civil aviation.
Competition for the six spots was intense, because of their projected economic benefits. Scheduled to operate through at least 2017, the research test sites are expected to be an economic boon for their local economies. They not only will generate investment and jobs in the short term, but will attract businesses expecting the sites to become investment hubs for future UAS development. The industry trade association, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, estimates the UAS industry will generate $82 billion in economic growth over the first decade of commercial use. In light of these projections, it is perhaps not surprising that applicants not chosen quickly started complaining about the selection process. Congressman Michael Turner (R-Ohio) has asked the FAA to explain its decision-making process and justify its reasons for not selecting Dayton, Ohio as one of the six sites.
In recognition of privacy and civil liberty concerns surrounding UAS operations, the FAA promulgated regulations designed to protect those rights at the research test sites. Site operators are required to comply with any applicable federal, state and local privacy laws, develop written policies for privacy protection and for data use and retention, and conduct annual compliance reviews that are open to public comment. These regulations create few substantive restrictions on UAS operations, but instead leave those matters to other governmental and regulatory authorities.