On February 14, 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (Reauthorization Act), which mandated the FAA, NASA, and the Department of Defense to develop a drone test and research program. The program would research the safe operation and integration of drones into the National Airspace System (NAS), further developing critical guidelines for privacy. The collected data will provide a background for drone regulations to be released in 2015.
After multiple delays, the FAA announced in February that it was accepting proposals to develop six test sites where the research could be performed. Currently, 50 applicants from 37 states have submitted proposals for test sites with the promise of bringing lucrative drone industries to their state.
Keen on winning one of the precious test site designations, Ohio and Indiana have combined forces, sending in a joint application to the FAA. The partnership places both states in a prime position. Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and surrounding Dayton-Springfield are recognized regions of UAS research and development. Indiana in turn seeks to make use of its neighboring restricted airspace to create a larger area of operation.
Confident in the site designation, Ohio has set aside land and will build a UAS Center and Test Complex, which will oversee testing, operations, and research. The Ohio-Indiana partnership, however, faces significant competition from California, Washington, Texas, Florida, and Arizona.
In May, North Dakota’s legislature approved a $5 million appropriation to pursue drone industry development for the state. North Dakota will use $1 million to create the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and the remaining appropriation will be awarded North Dakota is chosen by the FAA. The hope is that the FAA, strapped with debt, will consider states that can provide economic support for the program.
There are even more localized efforts competing for FAA attention. The California Unmanned Aircraft Systems Portal or Cal UAS is one of the largest concerted efforts in the test site race. Cal UAS is a consortium of airports, military, engineering and research firms, and state and local leadership headed by Inyokern Airport and Indian Wells Valley Airport District.
The Cal UAS Portal is a proposed area of operations covering more than 70,000 sq miles. The area is an ideal space for testing as it covers a variety of terrain: deserts, mountains, valleys, and maritime. Cal UAS has rallied support throughout the state, which includes realtors, to bring drone testing to California.
The financial promise of a drones industry is high with an estimated impact of $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025. However, there are those who value civil liberties, privacy, and personal well being over the economic potential. Across the country, anti-drone activists are pushing back against drone testing.
In April, the Network to Stop Drone Surveillance and Warfare, a coalition of peace and justice groups, held a month long anti-drone campaign in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and proposed drone test sites. The April Days of Action Against Drone campaign began a month after the final deadline to submit test and research site applications. As the FAA begins its tours of the proposed test sites in the next few months, these concerned citizens will continue to push back.
Regardless of the anti-drone movement, the FAA remains the largest impediment to the testing program. The test site selection process has been slow and fraught with many delays. According to the schedule set forth in the Reauthorization Act, the test sites should be up and running by January 2013. This goal will inevitably be pushed back, but hopefully will not affect the final 2015 regulation release.
DARC will continue to provide updates on the test site selection process.