Forty- to fifty-pound unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), both fixed-wing and helicopter models, will soon fly from Captain Jack Thomas/El Dorado Memorial Airport, Kan., under two certificates of authorization (COA) from the FAA.
A company called Flint Hills Solutions will build and operate UASs at the airport, and train customers on their use. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said other airports also have UAS operations, but he wouldn’t identify them. “As of December 1, 2010, there were 273 active COAs, but not all necessarily involve use of airport facilities,” Dorr said. He later clarified that all the COAs involve unmanned systems. An official with AOPA’s Government Affairs department said AOPA requested a list of authorizations for UAS operations starting four years ago without success.
Flint Hills Solutions will manufacture unmanned fixed-wing and helicopter vehicles at the airport. The authority to operate UASs was given to the city of El Dorado, located near Wichita, not the airport. The FAA does not certify airports for UAS operations, but rather, certifies organizations including governments for such operation.
Airport Manager Caleb Marsh noted that El Dorado airport is not busy, and called the arrangement a good deal for the city and the airport. Under the agreement, the city can back out of the deal should conflicts arise with existing airport traffic.
The COA allows the city to use defined airspace for specified times and includes special provisions unique to each operation. COAs require coordination with an appropriate air traffic control facility (Wichita ATC). The city has designated Flint Hills Solutions to supervise the UAS operations.
“El Dorado airport will be a superior place for UAS operations and is perfectly situated 30 miles from Wichita Kansas that allows for training and operations outside of Class B, C or D airspace”, said Roger Powers, president and CEO of Flint Hills Solutions. “Other airports we have evaluated are either too remote or too congested for safe operations of UASs. We are so fortunate to be able to grow with El Dorado and be a part of what industry experts say is a $16 billion per year market by 2016. We have signed many mutual aid agreements with our public entity partners in the Midwest including Butler County Kansas to utilize our Unmanned Aircraft for their emergency requirements. El Dorado Airport will be a great asset for the State of Kansas as well as any midwestern state to train for critical public safety missions.”
“We are very excited to be a part of this exceptional opportunity for our City,” said Herb
Llewellyn, City Manager for El Dorado. “These COAs are just the official start of what will be a long and productive partnership with Flint Hills Solutions to grow high technology jobs in our wonderful City.”
The UASs that will be operated initially at El Dorado Airport include the FHS FH-700 Fixed Wing unmanned aircraft and the FH-520 Vertical Take Off and Landing Helicopter. Both systems are fully autonomous unmanned aircraft systems and weigh less than 55 pounds. The UASs are currently being used by various government entities for aerial inspections, emergency response, fire and rescue, and other public safety operations.
FHS multiple payload options include stabilized electro-optical and infrared sensors, and a wide range of commercially available off-the-shelf digital cameras and camcorders necessary for high-resolution inspections and surveillance.