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Domestic Drone Expansion Enters New Phase
By Sandra I. Erwin

Aurora Flight Sciences' Skate unmanned aerial vehicle

As many as 37 U.S. states are vying for a piece of the projected $83 billion domestic drone market.

The much-anticipated drone boom will not materialize, however, until the Federal Aviation Administration lays out a plan for integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.

Calvin L. Scovel III, inspector general of the Department of Transportation, said the FAA predicts there will be roughly 10,000 active unmanned air systems (UAS) in the United States in five years. But the FAA is far from ready to declare UAS safe to fly domestically, Scovell told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development.

“FAA has approved these operations on a limited, case-by-case basis, due in part to the safety risks associated with UAS integration into the national airspace,” he said. “While the capabilities of unmanned aircraft have significantly improved, they have a limited ability to detect, sense, and avoid other air traffic.”

Congress set a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline for the FAA to decide when and how it will open up U.S. airspace to unmanned aircraft. A key step in that process is establishing a testing program to ensure drones can fly safely.

The FAA is working to meet the congressional deadline, but the agency is unclear on how the UAS testing program will be funded, or even how much it will cost, an FAA source told National Defense.

The FAA in February solicited proposals from state and local governments, universities and other public entities that are interested in becoming research and test sites for unmanned aircraft. The agency said it would choose six locations in late 2013. The next step will be the selection of “academic centers of excellence” for unmanned aviation.

The competition to host test sites is fierce. States and localities are aggressively marketing their academic, technical and industrial clout. Unmanned aircraft manufacturers also are eager to capitalize on potentially lucrative opportunities to sell UAS to civilian government agencies and corporations in the energy and agriculture sectors.

But the lack of a funding plan for the testing program is becoming a concern because it could further delay the FAA approval process, said Dan Stohr, spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about how this is going to play out and how quickly this is going to play out,” he said. “Whatever benefit industry could derive from the test site program disappears if it is not funded.”

States that are seeking to host test sites are actively raising funds to compete, he said. “Whether state or local funds are enough to bridge the gap, we don’t know.”

The FAA has been clear that it does not intend to operate and maintain the test sites, but it will still need funds to conduct the tests, said Richard Efford, assistant vice president of legislative affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association. Some help will come from manufacturers and the military services that probably will allow the FAA to use their UAS at little or no cost, Efford said. The agency would allocate a portion of its UAS research-and-development budget of $7.5 million to analyze the results of the tests.

Companies in the UAS industry worry that, unless the FAA sets up a structured test program with steady funding, decisions about integration could be pushed far beyond the 2015 deadline. A recent study published by AIA said that UAS integration by 2015 “requires a funded, timely, focused standards development and certification process.” That could take several years, the report said. “A lack of long-term funding commitments and sequestration pose a threat to UAS integration.”

The Obama administration requested $12 million in fiscal year 2014 for the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office to coordinate federal agencies’ concerns about the future air-traffic control system called NextGen, which would include the integration of UAS into the national airspace. How much of that money would specifically target UAS testing is unknown.

Melanie Hinton, spokeswoman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said test sites would not directly receive government funds. “Because the sites would attract government and industry personnel, many states could see the remarkable economic benefits of a test site,” she said in a statement.

States are pulling out all the stops to court the FAA. Among the heavy hitters is Mississippi, which is home to major aerospace research centers and military testing facilities.  

Mississippi State University hired retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James O. Poss to help position an MSU-led consortium of 13 universities to compete for the FAA UAS center of academic excellence program and to become one of six test sites.

Poss is a former Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “I'm trying to take the procedures and tactics we developed in the intelligence community and find peaceful uses for them,” he said in an interview.

The FAA program would benefit from his military expertise, he said. “It's crucial to figure out how to safely fly UAS in the national airspace. Only the military [and a small number of civilian agencies] do that now and under restrictive procedures.”

Poss expects the testing process to be lengthy, no matter how much pressure is exerted by the UAS industry and its political supporters to accelerate the integration of drones in to the airspace.

“I fully support the FAA drive to ensure safety,” said Poss. “Aircraft are ready to be deployed. But [it is important to take] that extra step to make sure we are safe.”

Mississippi is especially eager to bring on the drones for reasons that go beyond economic benefits, he said. During the response to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP oil spill in 2010, the state “suffered from the inability to fly UAS to support relief efforts,” Poss said. The Army and Air Force ended up removing sensors from their unmanned aircraft and attaching them to radio towers because they could not get clearance to fly them, he said.

Poss believes Mississippi has a significant edge in the FAA competition because UAS already are being developed, tested and built in the state

At Camp Shelby, the nation’s largest National Guard base, MSU is testing drones made by Aurora Flight Sciences. Other Mississippi-based drone manufacturers are Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds Global Hawks and Fire Scout; and Stark Aerospace, the American arm of Israel Aerospace Industries. “We are looking for other companies to move here,” said Poss.

North Dakota is another leading contender. The University of North Dakota is one of the nation’s UAS academic hubs. It recently announced it developed sense-and-avoid software that will be tested aboard a NASA unmanned aircraft.

The university is working with MITRE Corp., NASA Langley, Draper Laboratory, North Dakota State University and the North Dakota National Guard on a “cooperative automatic sense and avoid” technology for unmanned aircraft.

The FAA said the site selection will consider “geographic diversity, climatic diversity, location of ground infrastructure and research needs, population density and air traffic density.”

Sites will be required to safeguard citizens’ privacy, the FAA said. They must “operate in accordance with federal, state and other laws regarding the protection of an individual’s right to privacy.”

Industry groups have endorsed the FAA program but have questioned whether the agency is prepared to tackle significant technological and political challenges to the deployment of UAS in the United States.

Spectrum allocation for radio communications is one issue that the FAA should investigate, said the Aerospace Industries Association study. “UAS communications, both for command and control and the transmission of data, require a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is already in very short supply,” the study said. “Without sufficient spectrum, UAS signals may interfere with other forms of communication.”

Efford said the Federal Communications Commission's expected reallocation of 25 MHz of spectrum that currently is used by the Defense Department could put additional pressure on UAS operations.

Another hurdle is the current air traffic control system, which will have difficulties accommodating the growth in manned flights, let alone unmanned, the AIA study said. Allowing unmanned aircraft in the U.S. airspace “presents a significant challenge to regulators.” AIA believes the NextGen air traffic control system will help solve that problem. NextGen is based on satellite and digital communications.

Further complicating UAS integration, the AIA study noted, are an increasing number of states and communities that have passed laws banning or restricting the use of UAS. The association suggests there is a need for “national privacy objectives and guidelines.”

AUVSI estimated that the economic impact of domestic UAS operations will exceed $13 billion in the first three years, and could reach $83 billion between 2015 and 2025. The drone industry could create more than 34,000 manufacturing jobs. Tax revenue to the states could top $482 million in the first 11 years following integration. “Every year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact,” said AUVSI. “States that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not.”

Photo Credit:
Aurora Flight Sciences


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