If drones piloted by operators a world away can successfully deliver a GPS-guided missile strike into a war zone, then why can't they distribute a dozen DVDs through U.S. airspace to your doorstep?
While opening up federally-regulated airspace to privately-owned unmanned aircraft was once a far-fetched, futuristic concept, it is now well on its way after the Federal Aviation Administration approved six test sites Monday for operators to conduct "large scale" research and test flights across the country.
Although the FAA authorized the first commercial operation of drones last September in Alaska and unmanned aircraft already dabble in monitoring the nation's borders and ports, FAA administrator Michael Huerta called Monday's announcement "a major milestone" toward integrating unmanned aircraft into the country's airspace.
"We recognize the expanded use of unmanned aircraft presents great opportunities, but it's also true that integrating these aircraft present significant challenges," Huerta conceded on a conference call with reporters. "Safety continues to be our first priority as we move ahead. There are operational issues that we need to address such as ensuring that unmanned aircraft can detect and avoid other aircraft, and that they operate safely if they lose the link to their pilot."
Amazon's Jeff Bezos made headlines earlier this month when he showed off an innovative drone delivery system on national television. UPS also announced plans to develop unmanned aerial delivery. While Bezos said Amazon's idea is three or four years from implementation, today's move by the FAA creates a platform to begin working drones into the country's skies.
The winners who will operate test sites are the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York's Griffiss International Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University and Virginia Tech. Huerta said companies like Amazon and UPS are free to negotiate with them to develop and conduct testing of their own unmanned vehicles.
Huerta said the first test site is expected to be operational within 180 days and all six locations will operate until at least February of 2017, when authorization for the FAA is set to expire. Even then, Congress could extend the program.
The FAA selected six winners among 25 proposals from public entities in 24 states. Huerta said the locations chosen create cross-country geographic and climatic diversity and help the FAA meet its research needs, including location of ground infrastructure, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk.
"The idea of the designation of the test site is for them to test unmanned aircraft within a certificate of authorization in a defined piece of airspace so that we can develop a better understanding of how it interacts with other aircraft as well as how these aircraft operate under a wide variety of different conditions," Huerta said. "We received many, many great proposals but in picking six what we have here is a slate that provides a great platform to conduct research all across the country."
Monday's move stems from a directive from Congress to demonstrate safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the country's airspace by 2015. Rep. Dina Titus, who says she lobbied hard for the state of Nevada to be chosen, cheered the announcement once the state's bid was approved.
"From the development of the U-2 spy plane in the 1950's, to the MQ-1 and MQ-9 systems stationed at Creech Air Force Base, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada has a decades-long, proud history advancing our nation's aerospace industry," Titus, D-Nev., said in a statement. "The selection of Nevada as a test site for the integration of UAS technologies is a perfect fit and I am proud to have advocated on behalf of our state. This decision will help grow local businesses already working in the UAS industry, as well as attract new ventures to Nevada."
Huerta said Nevada was selected because of its geographic location and "unique complexities of operating adjacent to military airspace" and significant population zones.
"Nevada gives us a good test bed to look at how unmanned aircraft operate across a variety of different airspace configurations, how it interacts in conjunction in the relationship between civilian and military airspace and also ensures that we will have geographic and climatic diversity," he said.
He said the FAA expects to issue a proposal "early next year" that it is currently crafting to govern the use of "a wide range of small civil unmanned aircraft systems." He added that the testing and research at the sites will strive to develop pilot training requirements as well as a policy to address privacy concerns.
"Our airspace system is not static and it's important for industry to understand that unmanned operations will evolve over time," he said. "We have successfully brought new technology into our nation's aviation system for more than 50 years and I have no doubt that we will do the same with unmanned aircraft."
Michael Toscano, president & CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International [AUVSI], said the test sites begin to unlock the economic and job creation potential of unmanned aircraft.
"AUVSI's economic report projects that the expansion of [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] technology will create more than 100,000 jobs nationwide and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade following integration," Toscano stated. "Our hope is this will lead to the creation of more sites and eventually to full integration of UAS into our skies, which will help create lasting jobs and boost the U.S. economy."