Congress envisions unmanned aircraft sharing the skies with passenger planes by the end of 2015.
The Federal Aviation Administration named six teams across the nation that will host the development and testing of drones to fly safely in the same skies as commercial airliners.
The announcement represents a major milestone toward the goal of sharing the skies by the end of 2015, in what is projected to become an industry worth billions of dollars. But technical hurdles and privacy concerns remain in a regulatory program that’s already a year behind schedule.
“The test-site news is a glimmer of hope, but there is still much standing in the way of catching up to other countries that are ahead of us on this new technology revolution,” said Brendan Schulman, a New York lawyer who heads commercial drone practice for the law firm Kramer Levin.
The FAA will work with the chosen groups to get at least one drone site operating within the next six months. Out of 25 applicants, the winners are:
• The University of Alaska, which has a diverse climate and a variety of test sites, including in Hawaii and Oregon. The university plans to work on state monitoring, navigation and safety standards.
• The state of Nevada, which plans to study standards for operators and certification requirements. The state will also study how air-traffic control procedures will evolve to handle drones.
• New York’s Griffiss International Airport near Utica, which plans to research how drones and passenger aircraft will sense and avoid each other, to prevent collisions, particularly in the congested Northeast airspace.
• North Dakota Department of Commerce, which plans to develop airworthiness data and validate the reliability of links between pilots and unmanned aircraft.
• Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, which plans to develop safety systems for drones.
• Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, which has test locations in Virginia and New Jersey, plans to test failure modes and technical risks for drones, to ensure they land safely if they lose their connection with a pilot.
“These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
The sites chosen are expected to attract economic development. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, projected the industry will create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity in the decade after the aircraft are allowed in general airspace.
“Today’s announcement by the FAA is an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft,” said Michael Toscano, the industry group’s CEO.
Interest grew Dec. 1, when Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos announced his company is testing delivering packages using drones on the CBS TV news show 60 Minutes.
But drones are now severely limited. A hobbyist can fly a small aircraft several hundred feet off the ground. The FAA has approved several hundred permits for university research and public uses, including 80 law-enforcement agencies, and a remote pilot is required for each aircraft.
The FAA won’t contribute financially to the research, but will help the test site operators set up a safe testing environment. Airline pilots will be notified when and where drones are being flown, in case any tests go awry.
“Safety continues to be our first priority as we move forward with integrating unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
Huerta released a map on Nov. 7 for integrating drones into the national airspace. He said the FAA is developing a rule to be announced early next year for a wide range of smaller, civil drones.
While the FAA has required the test sites to follow state and federal privacy standards, the American Civil Liberties Union remains concerned about the standards that will actually apply.
“Someday drones will be commonplace in U.S. skies and, before that happens, it’s imperative that Congress enact strong, nationwide privacy rules,” said Catherine Crump, ACLU staff attorney.