The Drone Age

Years from now, the end of 2013 probably will be remembered as the dawning of the Drone Age in America.

As New Year’s Eve festivities were warming up last week, the Federal Aviation Administration uncorked its long-awaited choices for six U.S. test sites that will usher in the widespread deployment of unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace. We’re not surprised FAA took a stealthy approach to its big announcement–our government’s love affair with drones fully embraces the dark ethos at the core of drone technology: you don’t see them coming until they’re already here.

In this case, what’s coming promises to dramatically change our way of life (and the view from your living room window): if the test program successfully integrates robot planes into our crowded skies, FAA anticipates that up to 7,500 commercial and government-sponsored drones may be buzzing around over America as soon as 2015. E-commerce giant Amazon is testing mini-drones for a new package delivery system, several major news outlets are racing to augment their eye-in-the-sky choppers with drones and it seems like every police department in the country is busy thinking up uses for them.

Locations in 24 states queued up to bid for the FAA’s hotly contested Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) test program. The winners are: the University of Alaska; the state of Nevada; Griffiss International Airport in Rome, NY; North Dakota Department of Commerce; Texas A&M University (Corpus Christi); and a collaboration between Virginia Tech and NJ’s Rutgers University. According to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, these “strategically located” sites will work with the agency to develop standardized procedures for the use of drones over the U.S. Currently, drone deployment requires case-by-case authorization from the government.

“With these sites, what we have is the platform to conduct broad-based research considering a wide variety of different factors,” Huerta said, in his official statement. Presumably those factors include the protection of commercial airliner routes from drone incursions and basic privacy issues (that laughter you’re hearing is the NSA dweeb reading this post on our hard drive).

FAA has been under intense pressure from Congress to get the test venues for unmanned aircraft up and running as soon as possible (at least one drone test facility must be operational within the next six months). Aerospace analysts estimate the domestic drone industry quickly will blossom into a $70-billion sector.

Several of the also-rans cried foul after FAA’s choices were announced. Perhaps most disappointed was an Ohio team that appeared to be a consensus front-runner in the drone test-site derby. The Dayton Development Coalition, which spearheaded Ohio’s bid, showcased the formidable aerospace resources of an area known as “the birthplace of aviation.”

Dayton’s assets include Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) and numerous university R&D programs. Centerville, OH is home to UAV manufacturer SelectTech and nearby Sinclair Community College has FAA approval for restricted flying of small UAVs at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport (the Ohio Army National Guard also received approval to train at the Springfield airport with a hand-launched UAV dubbed Raven).

Rep. Mike Turner, whose Congressional district includes Dayton, fired off a letter to Huerta this week demanding an “immediate briefing” explaining FAA’s selection process for choosing the UAV test sites. According to Turner, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, the selection of sites without the established aerospace infrastructure of the Dayton area will result in unnecessary duplication of systems and increased costs. He also implied the failure to pick a leading aerospace hub risks compromising the safety of domestic airspace.

“I believe no region is better positioned to host a test site than Dayton with our history in aviation, investment from private companies specializing in unmanned technologies and the research development at the AFRL and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base,” Turner said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe also is demanding an explanation from the FAA administrator on behalf of another contender, Oklahoma State University.

In announcing the six test sites, FAA said it considered a number of factors before making its choices, including differences in climate and geography, available infrastructure, aviation experience, aviation traffic volume and specific research proposals. Research at the test sites will cover safety and logistical concerns, some of which may be addressed by developing drone capabilities that can detect and avoid other aircraft.

Lawmakers in New Jersey, meanwhile, are scrambling to prepare for the ramifications of drone flights over the densely populated Garden State. A bill moving through the NJ legislature would require law enforcement agencies to delete data gathered during drone flights that are unrelated to ongoing investigations within 14 days. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Dan Benson, also imposes an 18-month prison sentence and $10,000 fine on anyone equipping drones with “antipersonnel devices.”

Benson’s bill defines an antipersonnel device as any weapon, device or projectile designed to “harm, incapacitate or otherwise negatively impact a human being.”

We assume this excludes large pepperoni pies from Pizzaland, but we’ll check before we place our next order.