The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has selected six test centres around the country that will serve as a research and testing backbone for determining how to integrate unmanned aircraft into controlled airspace.
The FAA already operates a UAS flight test centre in New Mexico, but Congress in 2012 ordered the agency to designate six independently funded and operated test centres.
Twenty-four states eyeing future economic development opportunities posed by commercial UAS responded with 25 separate proposals.
The FAA on 30 December selected proposals from the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, Griffiss international airport near Rome, New York, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the Corpus Christi campus of Texas A&M University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
The Alaska proposal includes additional test ranges in Hawaii and Oregon. Another test range in New Jersey is also included in the Virginia Tech proposal.
The six centres – along with the existing FAA site in New Mexico and test ranges operated by the US military – will serve as laboratories for a variety of technologies, procedures and regulations.
The centres were chosen because of their geographic diversity and how each proposed to address the FAA’s main areas of research and testing, says Michael Huerta, FAA administrator.
“It provides a platform for this research to be carried out on a very large scale across the country,” Huerta says.
The FAA is required by Congress to demonstrate that UAS can be integrated into the national airspace in 2015. But full integration could take several years to achieve. The FAA anticipates a lengthy, stepping-stone approach to integration, Huerta says.
The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International expects that airspace integration will generate $82 billion in economic growth within a decade.
“Our hope is this will lead to the creation of more sites and eventually to full integration of UAS into our skies, which will help create lasting jobs and boost the US economy,” the AUVSI says in a statement.
In 2012, the FAA began the integration process cautiously by allowing UAS to operate commercially only above the arctic circle in Alaska.
In November, the FAA unveiled the next step in the path to full integration. Starting in 2015, unmanned aircraft under 24.9kg (55lb) will be able to operate routinely in public airspace, as long as the aircraft remain within visual range of the operator and outside of heavy traffic zones in Class B/D airspace.
The FAA is still developing what step will follow in the progression to full integration, and the six test sites will be used as laboratories to inform the agency’s decisions, Huerta says.
The law passed by Congress requires the FAA to make the first of the six sites operational within 180 days. Each site must receive a certificate of authorization to begin UAS flights. The certificates require each location to define a special block of airspace and procedures to control the unmanned aircraft.
Manned aircraft flying through or near the test sites will be informed of any test activity through normal FAA procedures, including notices to airmen (NOTAM), Huerta says.
In addition to performing research on behalf of the FAA, the six test centres will be opened to the private companies. Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos, for example, has set a goal to deliver packages to customers using drones within five years.
“All operators [of the six test centres] are required to make facilities and research available to users who want to take advantes of these activities,” Huerta says.