The Federal Aviation Administration has chosen six research and test site operators across the US for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with the intent of delivering findings and operational experiences to help ensure the safe integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace. In selecting the six test site operators, FAA said it considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk.
While the selection of these test sites will not allow immediate access to the national airspace system for commercial and civil purposes, data and other information related to the operation of UAS that is generated by the six test site operators will help the FAA answer key research questions such as 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. This data will help the FAA to develop regulations and operational procedures for future commercial and civil use of the National Airspace System (NAS).
Background. In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to establish a test site program to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System. In selecting the test sites, the legislation mandated that the FAA, in consultation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Defense, consider geographic diversity, climatic diversity, location of ground infrastructure and research needs in choosing the sites.
The FAA solicited public input on how to select the sites. In March 2012, the FAA published a Request for Comments in the Federal Register, and in April, the FAA hosted two webinars to solicit additional public input. This outreach effort helped to develop the process.
On 14 Februar 2013, the agency solicited proposals from public entities, including state and local governments and eligible universities interested in operating the test sites. The FAA received complete submissions from 25 entities in 24 states.
Six selected sites. These six test sites achieve cross-country geographic and climatic diversity and help the FAA meet its UAS research needs. The six test site operators and the research they will conduct into future UAS use are:
University of Alaska. The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon. The research plan includes the development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation. Alaska also plans to work on safety standards for UAS operations.
State of Nevada. Nevada’s project objectives concentrate on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. The applicant’s research will also include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment and how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen. Nevada’s selection contributes to geographic and climatic diversity.
New York’s Griffiss International Airport. Griffiss International plans to work on developing test and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight. The applicant also plans to focus its research on sense and avoid capabilities for UAS and its sites will aid in researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested, northeast airspace.
North Dakota Department of Commerce. North Dakota plans to develop UAS airworthiness essential data and validate high reliability link technology. This applicant will also conduct human factors research. North Dakota’s application was the only one to offer a test range in the Temperate (continental) climate zone and included a variety of different airspace which will benefit multiple users.
Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. Texas A&M plans to develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing. The selection of Texas A&M contributes to geographic and climactic diversity.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Virginia Tech plans to conduct UAS failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas. This proposal includes test site range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey.
With the six selected sites, FAA said it is confident that the agency’s research goals of System Safety & Data Gathering, Aircraft Certification, Command & Control Link Issues, Control Station Layout & Certification, Ground & Airborne Sense & Avoid, and Environmental Impacts will be met.
Each test site operator will manage the test site in a way that will give access to parties interested in using the site. The FAA’s role is to ensure each operator sets up a safe testing environment and to provide oversight that guarantees each site operates under strict safety standards.
Among other requirements, test site operators must comply with federal, state, and other laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy, have publicly available privacy policies and a written plan for data use and retention, and conduct an annual review of privacy practices that allows for public comment. Under the current law, test site operations will continue until at least 13 February 2017.