Send in the Drones

The competition is heating up among states to host new U.S. test sites for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (a.k.a. drones). At least 24 states have queued up to bid to have their air hubs designated as UAV test sites in a program which potentially may generate billions in new revenue for the winners.

Later this year, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to select six U.S. test sites for UAVs. According to the federal government, the purpose of these sites is to determine if remotely piloted (and, hopefully, unarmed) aircraft “can be safely integrated into manned airspace” by 2015.

In its 2013 Aerospace Forecast, the FAA called UAVs “the most dynamic growth sector within the aviation industry.” The report predicts that at least 7,500 commercial UAVs will be operational in the U.S, within five years. The Feds envision handing out drone permits to energy companies, news organizations, filmmakers and researchers, among others. [We’re tempted to pause here and consider the ramifications of giving Rupert Murdoch a drone permit, but let’s not go there.]

FAA revealed in its 2013 forecast that at least 327 drones already are flying over the U.S. While many of these flights are undertaken as Air Force test programs in restricted airspace, there have been several reports this summer of drone “loaner” programs for unspecified border patrol and law enforcement assignments. The FBI has said it has the authority to use drones to hunt down kidnappers, and state and local law enforcement agencies already are lining up to be the first to acquire drone capabilities.

FAA has been mandated by Congress to integrate drones into what the acronym-addicted policy wonks call the NAS (National Air Space) by September 2015. Last month, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted its annual show at the Washington Convention Center, filling the exhibit hall with dozens of snazzy new drones in anticipation of a booming market for UAVs; exhibitors included U.S. aerospace giant Boeing. No word on whether China, Iran and North Korea sent delegations to the Washington confab to kick the tires on the latest drone prototypes.

A leading contender in the drone test-site derby is the Dayton Development Coalition in Ohio, which is touting resources like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Research Lab, numerous university R&D programs and a thriving regional aerospace industry. Dayton, which may be a frontrunner in the UAV sweepstakes, also is home to UAV manufacturer SelectTech Services, based in nearby Centerville, OH.

“We’ve done our homework and we have not been idle,” Joe Zeis, Coalition executive vice president and chief strategic officer, told the Springfield Sun-News. “Our goal is to be ready today or six months from today. We’re positioning Ohio to support the FAA in the integration of UAVs into civilian airspace safely and effectively.”

Sinclair Community College in OH has FAA approval for restricted flying of small UAVs at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. The Ohio Army National Guard received approval this year as well to train at the Springfield airport with a hand-launched UAV dubbed Raven. The Air Force also has FAA approval to fly developmental UAVs at the former DHL air hub in Wilmington, DE. A regional plan calls for UAVs to use existing facilities at the Springfield airport and the Wilmington Air Park for takeoff, then fly to military airspace in southern Ohio, previously used by F-16s, from the Springfield Air National Guard Base.

Seeking to overcome the advantage held by aero-defense hubs like Dayton, two states that aren’t even adjacent to each other have decided to pool their resources and submit a joint bid for the UAV test program. Virginia and New Jersey have teamed up to try to win their piece of the drone bonanza, in an effort spearheaded by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. [Earlier this year, it was reported that Maryland would join VA and NJ in a Mid-Atlantic Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium entry, but MD opted to send in its own bid].

FAA originally was supposed to select the six domestic test sites for drones in July, but acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta notified the members of the Unmanned Systems Congressional Caucus that the decision was being postponed due to safety concerns and privacy issues.

The lingering safety issues are an indication that—even in a controlled test-flight setting —adding drones to our overcrowded skies may be a dicey proposition. Further complicating the UAV test plans is the ongoing difficulty FAA has encountered in transitioning the nation’s airspace from a ground-based navigation system to a GPS system called NextGen. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general told Congress at a July 17 hearing that the NextGen program has been plagued by “the lack of an executable plan and unresolved critical design decisions.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center has petitioned the FAA about drone surveillance concerns. Evolving UAV technology is much more efficient at surveillance than manned aircraft because drones can fly closer to the ground for days at a time. Targets usually don’t see (or hear) UAVs coming until they’re already overhead. The Pentagon reportedly is developing next-generation drones the size of birds that can fly into buildings through windows.

UAV industry representatives are questioning whether the FAA has exceeded its federal mandate in raising privacy concerns. According to the Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International, the FAA’s role is to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the skies, not regulate privacy,

We’ll keep you posted as the domestic drone era dawns over the U.S.A.