FAA to begin drone trials in domestic airspace

The Federal Aviation Administration will authorize test sites for drone aircraft in upstate New York, New Jersey and at least eight other states, the agency said on Monday, preparing for a time when unmanned aircraft of various shapes and sizes cruise over the landscape.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/31/us/politics/us-names-domestic-test-sites-for-drone-aircraft.html?ref=us&_r=0
The agency picked six institutions to operate test locations, which will explore how to set safety standards, train and certify ground-based pilots, ensure that the aircraft will operate safely even if radio links are lost and, most important, how to replace the traditional method for avoiding collisions. Integrating the aircraft into the nation’s airspace, set by Congress for 2015, will be phased in gradually.
Already, federal investigators have linked one drone aircraft to a problem that would have been almost inconceivable if a pilot had been on board: The engine failed, and no one noticed.
The F.A.A. did not say precisely where the test flights would go, but it did say that selections were made with an eye toward diversity, including operations in areas of heavy air traffic, like the Northeast, and Nevada’s border with California.
While the public is mostly aware of drones like Predators, Global Hawks and other high-altitude, long-range planes operated by the government, Monday’s announcement covers commercial and private aircraft.
These include electric helicopters that a landlord could use to inspect a rooftop water tower; midget helicopters, which can fly close to power lines and are started by yanking a cord like the one on a chain saw; and Styrofoam planes that run on lighter fluid and can fly over fields to look for agricultural pests. Police and fire departments are among those eager to operate drones.
Competition to host the test sites was fierce, with state economic development agencies predicting the expansion of a major industry.
The six winners, chosen from a field of 25, included Griffiss International Airport, a former Air Force base near Rome, N.Y., which will fly some tests from Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and Virginia Tech, which will fly in Virginia and has an agreement with Rutgers University in New Jersey for testing there as well. Virginia Tech plans to conduct “failure mode” testing — finding out what happens if the aircraft’s control link is lost.
The other winners were the University of Alaska, which plans to test in Hawaii and Oregon as well as Alaska, the State of Nevada, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, and Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. Michael P. Huerta, the administrator of the F.A.A., said the sites provided diverse geography, climate and air traffic density.
Mr. Huerta said the choice of the six institutions marked a milestone for the aircraft, whose proponents prefer to call them “unmanned aerial systems.” But he said that while a 2012 law sets 2015 as the year by which they should be integrated into an airspace shared with conventional airplanes, “we would envision that that would be a staged process, as we learn more about what these aircraft are, and how they interact with other aircraft.”
The phase-in could be by type of drone or by type of airspace, or some other factor. The research will continue until 2017, the F.A.A. said. Flights are expected to begin within six months.
The basic concept of integrated airspace is that everything in the sky — manned or not — will use the Global Positioning System to determine its location, and will radio that information to the ground, where a computer will develop a whole picture and send that to all pilots. Sophisticated drones could use that data without human intervention to sense conflicts with other aircraft.
Mr. Huerta said that the agency had already issued the first commercial license for drone use: In Alaska it gave ConocoPhillips, the oil company, permission to use a ScanEagle off the Alaska coast.
The United States uses the ScanEagle as a spy plane; Iran claims to have captured one and copied its design.
The F.A.A. has put several privacy requirements in place for the test program. Site operators will be required to publish privacy policies, covering how they will use the data they gather and how long they will retain it, among other steps.
Many elected officials celebrated the selection of sites in their jurisdictions. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, said the selection of Grand Forks would help the drone industry grow and “help make sure it can become a key part of North Dakota’s economy.”
Some were less certain. “It’s good news and bad news,” said Luis R. Sepulveda, an assemblyman from the Bronx, who said that a bill he introduced this year to limit police use of drones would reach the Assembly floor in Albany in January or early February.
“There’s an opportunity for economic development of a new industry, with the potential to be a billion-dollar industry,” he said. “But we have some concerns about privacy. These are devices that can be disguised in such a way that you don’t even know you’re being recorded.”
A lawyer in New York who specializes in drones, Brendan Schulman, said the announcement was about a year behind schedule, meaning that integration into the air traffic system might also be delayed.
“The future regulatory framework remains unknown and potentially could be quite burdensome,” he said, although “the test site news is a glimmer of hope.”
Daniel R. Benson, a New Jersey state assemblyman, said: “You want to see the technology being tested. It’s going to mean we’re at the cutting edge and hopefully it will bring jobs in the future.”
But he added, “any new technology also brings new concerns.”

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