FAA Selection Sets UAS Test Sites into Motion

 - February 4, 2014, 12:35 AM

The FAA kept its oft-repeated promise to designate six unmanned aircraft system (UAS) test sites by the end of last year. On December 30, the agency announced that it had selected universities and other public entities in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia to operate test sites at their own expense, fulfilling a requirement of Congress in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act. Entities in several other states will also participate in the UAS testing through partnerships.

Winning test-site proponents crowed about their selections by the FAA, which they expect will spur significant new economic development. “Being selected as one of six sites for UAV development in the country is a historic moment for [Nevada]. This selection is a major win for [Nevada]!” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) tweeted after the FAA’s announcement. Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi hosted an “FAA UAS test site citywide celebration” at a downtown tavern in the coastal city.

In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which President Obama signed in February that year, Congress directed the agency to establish six UAS test sites. In an overarching provision, the reauthorization legislation also required the FAA to prepare for the “safe integration” of civil UAS into the National Airspace System “as soon as practicable” but no later than Sept. 30, 2015. In addition, the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act required the FAA to establish a UAS test program at six ranges.

The FAA received 25 test-site proposals from 24 states. In a conference call with reporters, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency made a “concerted effort” to choose test sites that represent both geographic and climatic diversity, as the FAA reauthorization act directs. It also took into consideration the location of ground infrastructure, the type of research proposed, the “aviation experience” of the applicants and the types and volume of aircraft that fly in the vicinity of the sites.

According to Huerta, the FAA expects the six chosen sites will function until at least February 2017, which conforms with language of the reauthorization legislation stating: “The program shall terminate five years after the date of the enactment of this act.” A House and Senate conference committee report recommends a later date: Sept. 30, 2020.

Test-site Proposals

Each of the six winning test-site proposals covers specific areas of UAS research and development. Summaries of the proposals follow.

• The University of Alaska-Fairbanks will manage the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, including sites in Hawaii and Oregon, and concentrate on developing UAS aircraft and safety standards. “The complex, with its geographic diversity in landscapes spanning seven climatic zones, will allow UAS manufacturers and potential users the ability to test their equipment in the Arctic, the tropics and arid environments,” according to the university. The complex will build on the ongoing work of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration.

• The state of Nevada will focus on operator standards and certification requirements and take a “concentrated look” at how ATC procedures will evolve with the addition of unmanned aircraft. Nevada’s application to the FAA included the state as the direct applicant, and a 28-member team including the Nevada System of Higher Education, the Nevada National Guard, Bowhead Systems, Navigator Development and Drone America.

Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., will focus on UAS test, evaluation, verification and validation processes and also research “sense-and-avoid” technology. The test site will be based at Griffiss and at Joint Base Cape Cod, Mass., a joint-use base for four military commands. The Syracuse-based Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research, an alliance of 40 private and public entities and academic institutions, will manage the operation.

• The Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site in North Dakota, advanced by that state’s Department of Commerce, will develop UAS “airworthiness essential” data, validate “high-reliability” link technology and conduct human-factors research. The Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, which Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) established last May, will manage activities associated with the test site. The site will be based in the Grand Forks region, home to Grand Forks Air Force Base and the University of North Dakota.

• Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi will develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations “with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing.” The university’s Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, Camber Corp and other research institutions and companies combined for the FAA proposal. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is collaborating with the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

• Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., will conduct UAS failure mode testing and “identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas.” The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, led by Virginia Tech, is a joint proposal of Virginia and New Jersey, and includes participation by Rutgers University and other universities, government agencies and companies. The University of Maryland planned to join the partnership.

“Across the six applicants, we’re confident that our research goals of system safety and data gathering, aircraft certification, command and control link issues, control station layout and certification, ground and airborne sense-and-avoid and environmental impacts will be met,” Huerta said. “What we have is the platform to conduct broad-based research, considering a wide variety of differentfactors.”