In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which directed the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a test site program to integrate drones (or Unmanned Aircraft Systems as the FAA likes to call them) into the National Airspace System.
In other words, the FAA’s task is come up with a way for drones to fly safely in the same vicinity as commercial airliners. And while this is very much both a worthy and achievable goal, it is by no means an easy one. To do it right will take a lot of research, which is where these FAA test sites come in.
After reviewing submissions from organizations in 24 states, the FAA picked 6 applicants to each operate a test site. These sites are to be managed so that all qualified interested parties can be given access to use them, while maintaining oversight and strict safety standards. Test site operators are required to comply with federal, state, and local laws governing privacy.
Each of the six sites offers a specialized area of study. These sites are:
1) Griffiss International Airport (NY)
Specialization: Develop “sense and avoid” abilities in drones. This is fundamental to the integration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles into the already crowded airspace of the U.S.
2) North Dakota Department of Commerce
Specialization: Evaluate and improve UAV airworthiness, as well as conduct research on human factors that can impact drone usability.
North Dakota’s site was the first of the 6 planned sites to become operational. This news was announced on April 21, 2014, which puts this milestone over 2 months ahead of Congress’ schedule.
3) State of Nevada
Specialization: Drone operator competency standards and certification requirements, as well as the effect of UAVs on air traffic control systems.
4) Texas A&M University Corpus Christi – led by the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center (LSUASC)
Specialization: Develop safety standards for UAV operations, and procedures for testing airworthiness.
5) Viginia Tech (Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems)
Specialization: UAV failure mode testing and identification of risks areas.
Viginia Tech’s site was the final of the 6 planned sites to be declared operational. This occurred at an event at the site on August 13, 2014, which featured Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Governor McAuliffe said that unmanned aircraft “are going to be used in countless industries all across the commonwealth, the country and the globe. They will of course improve productivity, support advanced rescue operations and revolutionize the way that we do business, and I’m just glad that the kickoff is right here in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
This test site’s airspace includes portions of Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland.
6) University of Alaska
Specialization: Development of standards for different types of aerial drones, including flight data monitoring and navigation. Also includes testing in seven climatic zones with additional locations in Hawaii and Oregon.
Whatever the area of study of these test sites, each of them represent a huge step on the road toward unlocking the world-changing potential of unmanned aircraft systems. These test sites also begin to unlock the economic and job creation potential of unmanned aircraft. Their proximity will almost certainly provide a significant boost to local economies.