With economic boom potential, FAA's chosen UAS test sites must first find funds to begin operations
Now that the has selected the six test sites that will conduct research to integrate civil unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace, the question being asked is: How will they pay for themselves? “Any way they can” is the answer, as there is no FAA budget to support the sites.
The test sites plan to raise funding from state sources, academic and industry partners, by competing for research contracts from federal agencies and charging for use of their test ranges—all in pursuit of the significant economic benefit forecast to come as the civil UAS market grows.
Establishing the test sites is a key step in a series of milestones set by Congress in the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation, which calls for the agency to enable safe integration of unmanned aircraft into civil airspace by the end of September 2015.
Announcing on Dec. 30 the results of a 10-month selection process involving 25 proposals from 24 states, the FAA said it plans to have at least one of the sites operational within 180 days. The operators selected are based in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia, but several involve more than one state.
The chosen operators are the University of Alaska, leading a team including Hawaii and Oregon; the state of Nevada; New York's Griffiss International Airport, teamed with Massachusetts; North Dakota Chamber of Commerce; Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (Tamucc); and Virginia Tech, teamed with New Jersey and Maryland. The sites were selected to provide geographic and climatic diversity.
“We are all asking ourselves exactly where the revenue is going to come from to make all this happen,” says Louis Cifuentes, vice president for research and commercialization at Tamucc. “Basically, we will go into every nook and cranny to find different agency solicitations for research.” Recovering range costs, building up academic programs and attracting start-up business are other potential revenue streams, he says.
The second question being asked is what research the sites will perform, as the FAA will not dictate their R&D agendas. Each site will have a unique research focus, but details of the planned activities are still vague. “We are now working with the FAA to provide a proper activity plan for 2014,” says Andrea Bianchi, program manager for the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, which will help Griffiss International Airport manage test ranges in New York and Massachusetts.
“The FAA's role is to help the test-range operators set up a safe testing environment and to provide oversight that ensures the sites operate under strict safety standards,” the agency says. “The selected operators now have to apply for a Certificate of Authorization [COA]. Once that's granted, they can begin their research. The site operators and users will provide funding for their research activities. Congress did not appropriate federal funds for test site operations.”
Led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex team will operate 13 ranges—six in Alaska, four in Oregon and three in Hawaii—in seven climate zones providing overland, overwater, coastal, arctic, tropical and arid test environments. The research focus will be on developing standards for UAS categories, state monitoring and navigation, and safety standards for UAS operations.
With an initial $5.5 million in state funding, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems plans to work on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. Test resources include airfields and special-use airspace in sparsely populated areas.
Griffiss, in central New York, will focus on ground and airborne sense-and-avoid research and integrating UAS into busy airspace, says Bianchi. Backed by the CenterState CEO and MassDevelopment economic development agencies, talks are underway to secure state funding to begin operations, she says.
With an initial $5 million in state funding, North Dakota has established the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority to operate its temperate-climate test site, which will focus on high-reliability data link technology, human-factors research and developing essential airworthiness data.
Texas A&M's Lone Star UAS Center will operate a state-wide set of ranges focused on developing protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing of UAS. The team includes the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
Virginia Tech leads the Mid-Atlantic Partnership, which includes Rutgers University and has test ranges in Virginia and New Jersey; it will focus on UAS failure-mode testing. The University of Maryland plans to join the team.