Six sites around the country have been chosen as the location for testing the use of unmanned aircraft — better known as drones — and how they’ll interact with air traffic systems, the federal government announced on Monday.
According to the release from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the test sites selected will not immediately grant drones “access to the national airspace system (NAS) for commercial and civil purposes,” the but instead will provide “data and other information related to the operation of [unmanned aerial systems (UAS)] that … will help the FAA answer key research questions.” This includes coming up with solutions to allow for drones to ‘sense and avoid’ collisions, how to implement ground control station standards and human factors, and how to link drones into the interface with the air traffic control system. “This data will help the FAA to develop regulations and operational procedures for future commercial and civil use of the NAS,” it continued.
Out of twenty-four applicants, the following six sites have been chosen to take part in the program:
- University of Alaska. The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon. The research plan includes the development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation. Alaska also plans to work on safety standards for UAS operations.
- State of Nevada. Nevada’s project objectives concentrate on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. The applicant’s research will also include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment and how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen. Nevada’s selection contributes to geographic and climatic diversity.
- New York’s Griffiss International Airport. Griffiss International plans to work on developing test and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight. The applicant also plans to focus its research on sense and avoid capabilities for UAS and its sites will aide in researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested, northeast airspace.
- North Dakota Department of Commerce. North Dakota plans to develop UAS airworthiness essential data and validate high reliability link technology. This applicant will also conduct human factors research. North Dakota’s application was the only one to offer a test range in the Temperate (continental) climate zone and included a variety of different airspace which will benefit multiple users.
- Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. Texas A&M plans to develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing. The selection of Texas A&M contributes to geographic and climactic diversity.
- Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Virginia Tech plans to conduct UAS failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas. This proposal includes test site range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey.
While drones are often associated with combat, given the use of armed UAVs as part of the targeted killing program, the aircraft under discussion is of the unarmed variety. These have raised concerns of their own, however, related to privacy and the possibly invasive use of their surveillance capabilities. The FAA in Monday’s announcement underlined the importance of privacy, declaring, “Among other requirements, test site operators must comply with federal, state, and other laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy, have publicly available privacy policies and a written plan for data use and retention, and conduct an annual review of privacy practices that allows for public comment.”
On top of that, the FAA’s recently released roadmap on integrating commercial drones specifically included alleviating privacy concerns as a core requirement for drone usage. “The rules are necessarily broad, since the agency is creating guidelines nationally for vehicles that will travel through myriad jurisdictions, all potentially with different laws for law enforcement, personal, and commercial drone usage,” technology journalist Kelsey Atherton wrote at Popular Science about the roadmap’s proposed privacy rules. “Another reason is that safeguarding privacy is a new role for the agency, and they’re approaching it very, very cautiously.”
Currently, the FAA keeps the use of drones on a short-leash, prohibiting their use except through specific test-site approval — as seen in today’s announcement — or as model airplanes and toys, only rarely granting commercial ventures the opportunity to use them. That may all change once the FAA begins approving more ventures maintaining their own remote aircraft, which is currently estimated to take place by 2020. Online retail giant Amazon recently announced that it would be working to develop a fleet of remotely piloted octocopters to deliver small items swiftly, a proposal that has raised some eyebrows due to its somewhat outlandish nature. With this latest step, the FAA has moved closer to making Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ dream a reality.