From the congested air traffic of the northeast, to the extreme climates of Hawaii and Alaska, the Federal Aviation Administration sought to represent U.S. airspace diversity in its six choices for all Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) testing to begin June 28, 2014. On that day, one or more of the sites announced will open for testing: the University of Alaska, the State of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport of New York, North Dakota, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, and Virginia Tech.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the chief priority in deciding the slate of six was diversity. The FAA made the call with the help of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense (DoD), choosing from applications submitted by 25 entities in 24 states.
Operations are allowed to continue on these sites until Feb. 13, 2017, according to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act; but Huerta said this does not mean certification will be delayed until that time. He said that “particular operations” will be authorized by 2015. It is too early to say how UAS would be phased into airspace, said Huerta, but aircraft of different sizes and specs mean it will be gradual.
The process for selecting test site users will be individually determined by each of the operators, who are required to make them available for both commercial and civil use. According to Huerta, the FAA does not have any further guidelines as to what criteria the site operators use to select testers.
The site operators are tasked with helping the FAA find solutions for “‘sense and avoid,’ command and control, ground control station standards and human factors, airworthiness, lost link procedures and the interface with the air traffic control system,” states the FAA release.
It will then be the FAA’s turn to develop regulations and procedures for both civil and commercial, and present and future airspace use based on the findings. The FAA’s specific research goals for the test sites are cited in the press release as system safety and data gathering, aircraft certification, command and control link issues, control station layout and certification, ground and airborne sense-and-avoid, and environmental impacts.
As mandated by the law, the first site will be operational in 180 days. Huerta said the FAA will work with all sites concurrently to ensure that at least one will be ready by the deadline.
Prior to each testing event, the FAA will issue notices to anyone operating in the scope of the testing airspace, ensuring all affected entities will be informed of the potential of UAS in their vicinity.
Test site operators are required to have written plans available to the public describing how they’ll use all data gathered, in addition to their privacy policies. Operators must also conduct annual reviews of practices and make them open to the public for comment.
Selected Site Details
The University of Alaska hosts multiple site locations ranging over seven climatic zones in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon. The geographically diverse sites will develop standards for safety, UAS categories, state monitoring and navigation.
Nevada plans to create UAS standards and operations, and operator standards and certification requirements with a focus on the necessary evolution of air traffic control procedures as UAS are introduced into the civil environment and integrate with NextGen. The FAA also cites Nevada’s selection as contributing to geographic and climatic diversity.
The Rome, N.Y.-based Griffiss International Airport will seek to develop test and evaluation and verification and validation processes with FAA safety supervision. Research will focus on sense-and-avoid capabilities; the airport’s sites will also allow research into the challenges of integrating UAS into hyper-congested northeast airspace.
North Dakota sites operated by the state’s Department of Commerce will gather UAS airworthiness data and validate high reliability link technology as well as conduct human factors research. North Dakota sites provide a Temperate (continental) climate zone and include diverse airspace “which will benefit multiple users,” states the FAA release.
Texas A&M will form system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations, looking specifically to create protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing. The site also contributed to geographic and climatic diversity, the FAA said.
Virginia Tech will conduct testing of UAS failure mode in order to identify and evaluate operational and technical risk areas. In addition to campus grounds, the proposal includes range locations in New Jersey and other parts of Virginia.