FAA names operators of unmanned aircraft test sites

December 30, 2013

The FAA has selected six organizations to operate sites for testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in a key step toward establishing "a much-needed proving ground" for the integration of UAS technology into the National Airspace System, AOPA said.

In a Dec. 30 conference call, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta discussed the selection of the six site operators from a pool of 25 proposals. He described the research that each would be delegated to conduct. Specific site locations have yet to be announced.

Site operators are the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in New York State, North Dakota’s Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). The selections are intended, among other criteria, to provide the broadest possible range of geography and climate for the testing, authorized through February 2017. Actual UAS flights are expected to take place at sites run by all six operators.

The FAA said the six site operators would combine to meet UAS research goals of system safety and data gathering, aircraft certification, command and control link issues, control station layout and certification, ground and airborne sense and avoid, and environmental impacts.

"Each test site operator will manage the test site in a way that will give access to parties interested in using the site. The FAA’s role is to ensure each operator sets up a safe testing environment and to provide oversight that guarantees each site operates under strict safety standards," the FAA said in a news release.

In November, the FAA released a long-awaited "roadmap"  for UAS integration. Mandated by Congress in 2012, the roadmap addressed the need for developing UAS regulation and policies. It also paved the way for the test-site selections to proceed.

Advocating for safety

AOPA has long maintained that UAS and their operation should be certified to the same level of safety as piloted aircraft. The operation of unmanned aircraft the National Airspace System should not adversely affect general aviation, nor should UAS operations require specially designated airspace.

The FAA said it plans to have the first test site operational within 180 days, as mandated by Congress, and is working with all the operators to bring the other sites online quickly, said Tom Kramer, AOPA manager of airspace and modernization.

"The test sites will serve as a much-needed proving ground for UAS technology, and should lead to the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System without impacting other airspace users," Kramer said.

Huerta, discussing the FAA’s role of ensuring a safe testing environment, said the agency would use the notam system to alert pilots to activity in the test airspace, Kramer added.