FAA Designates Six Test Ranges for Unmanned Aircraft

 - December 30, 2013, 1:25 PM
In August, North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley pitched his state's test-site application at the Unmanned Systems Conference. North Dakota was one of the winners. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The Federal Aviation Administration has designated universities and other public entities in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia to establish research and test sites for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), fulfilling a key requirement of Congress in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act. The test-site selection, which the FAA announced on Monday, settled a hard-fought competition involving 25 proposals from 24 states.

In the FAA reauthorization act, which President Obama signed in February 2012, Congress directed the agency to establish six UAS test sites. It also required the FAA to prepare for the “safe integration” of UAS into the National Airspace System no later than Sept. 30, 2015.

The test-site selection represents “a major milestone toward integrating unmanned aircraft in our nation’s airspace,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters in a conference call. The agency made a “concerted effort” to choose test sites that represent both geographic and climatic diversity, and 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 nearby.

The FAA expects that a first test site will begin operations within 180 days of the announcement, and that all sites will function to at least February 2017, Huerta said. The site proponents are responsible for funding the operations.

Each of the six winning proposals covers specific areas of UAS research and development. The University of Alaska will concentrate on developing UAS aircraft and safety standards. It proposed ranges in seven climatic zones, including sites in Hawaii and Oregon. 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. 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 North Dakota site, advanced by that state’s Department of Commerce, will develop UAS “airworthiness essential” data, validate “high-reliability” link technology and conduct human factors research. 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.” Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University will conduct UAS failure mode testing and “identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas.” The Virginia Tech proposal contains a memorandum of understanding with Rutgers University and includes test site locations in Virginia and New Jersey.

“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 different factors.”