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FAA Approves Drone Operations Tests In US Skies

Moves toward 2015 goal of allowing commercial and private unmanned aircraft into civil airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration took a step forward this week toward permitting unmanned aircraft to share the airspace over the United States with its selection of six research and testing proposals. The proposals will explore a variety of operational issues involving the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), often termed drones, such as ground-based pilot certification, safety standards, and collision avoidance.

The testing and evaluation projects will take place in nearly a dozen locations, including New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Nevada, and Alaska. The tests will assess a range of factors affecting the operation of unmanned aircraft, such as geography, weather, and current airspace use. The tests will study different types of commercial and private aircraft that might be used by police and fire departments, utilities, and private citizens.

[How might commercial businesses profit from FAA tests? Read: Amazon Prime Goes Drone]

The FAA received a total of 25 proposals from 24 states. The six proposals approved by the FAA are from:

  • The University of Alaska, which offered test ranges in seven climate zones, plus geographic diversity with test ranges in Hawaii, Oregon, and Alaska. The university's research will address developing a set of standards for categories of UAS, navigation, and state monitoring, as well as safety standards for operating UASs.
  • Griffiss International Airport, a former Air Force base located near Rome, N.Y., which will develop test and evaluation procedures and verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight. The Griffiss group will also research sense-and-avoid capabilities for unmanned drones and assist in developing plans to integrate UASs into the congested skies over the Northeast.
  • Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, which will work on system safety requirements for unmanned systems and their operations, producing protocols and procedures for airworthiness.
  • The state of Nevada, which will focus on setting UAS operating standards and certification requirements. The researchers also will study how existing air traffic control procedures will need to evolve as UASs are introduced into the civil airspace environment, including integrating drones into NextGen, the FAA's next-generation air traffic control system.
  • The North Dakota Department of Commerce, which will develop essential UAS airworthiness operating data and conduct research into the interaction between humans and unmanned aircraft.
  • Virginia Tech, which will conduct UAS failure testing to identify and evaluate operational and technical risks using test ranges in Virginia and New Jersey. The university is working with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Rutgers, and the University of Maryland-College Park.

Image: U.S. Navy.  Pictured are (front to back, left to right): RQ-11A Raven, Evolution, Dragon Eye, NASA FLIC, Arcturus T-15, Skylark, Tern, RQ-2B Pioneer, and Neptune.
Image: U.S. Navy. Pictured are (front to back, left to right): RQ-11A Raven, Evolution, Dragon Eye, NASA FLIC, Arcturus T-15, Skylark, Tern, RQ-2B Pioneer, and Neptune.

The tests are in important step toward meeting a 2015 Congressional deadline to begin integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation's airspace. But they are also seen as a new source of jobs.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International applauded the FAA's announcement.

"In designating the first UAS test sites in these states, the FAA has taken an important step toward recognizing the incredible economic and job creation potential this technology brings," said Micahel Toscano, AUVSI's president and CEO, in a statement.

"AUVSI's economic report projects that the expansion of UAS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs nationwide and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade following integration."

Patience Wait is a Washington-based reporter who writes regularly about government IT for InformationWeek.

Mobile, cloud, and BYOD blur the lines between work and home, forcing IT to envision a new identity and access management strategy. Also in the The Future Of Identity issue of InformationWeek: Threats to smart grids are far worse than generally believed, but tools and resources are available to protect them. (Free registration required.)

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User Rank: Author
1/6/2014 | 4:56:33 PM
Re: Target practice
Lorna, I think you're right.  It certainly might give the NRA and gun lobby fresh ammo, pardon the pun, for protecting citizens' rights.  In the meantime, I  think it's time to invest in the next big business in home electronics: Drone Detectors!  And update those threatening "No Trespassing" signs for property owners to include a crossed out image of a drone.  
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 5:23:39 PM
Target practice
Wow, initiatives in Texas, Alaska, Nevada, Virginia and North Dakota. Anyone care to wager on which state will have some yahoo decide to shoot down a drone in the name of freedom? My money is on Texas.

Seriously, it's only a matter of time. What will be the FAA's response?
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 11:26:22 AM
Future of Private Eyes
These FAA-sanctioned tests bring us closer to the day when we can expect a new generation of unmanned aircraft, and surveillance gear, to be hovering overhead.  That raises some interesting legal and ethical questions about the increasing invasion of privacy.  What's to protect the public from the prying eyes of GoPro-enabled drones operated by private detectives or your local cat burglar?

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