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New York wins federal drone testing site designation

Ryan Delaney
A prototype drone from Propulsive Wing in Elbridge, N.Y.

Upstate New York has won a coveted test site designation for unmanned aerial systems - or drones - from the Federal Aviation Administration as part of that agency's work toward developing regulations for drones' integration into U.S. skies.

But for many here in upstate New York, the designation is more about the jobs and dollars that surround the booming drone industry, estimated to be worth $100 billion globally over the next decade. Industry trade groups predict the business will generated 70,000 jobs nationwide.

The six sites selected for drone testing by the FAA are: Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia and New York. Many sites will utilize airspace and facilities in neighboring states (New York partnered with Massachusetts).

The FAA had its eye on geographic and climate diversity, Administrator Michael Huerta said in a press conference call this morning.

Credit FAA

"It provides the platform for this research to be really be carried out on a very large scale across the entire country," he said.

Agriculture will be an early adopter so farmers can more easily monitor their crops. And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently sparked interest in using them to deliver packages.

Here's more from the FAA on the selections:

  • 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.
  • Nevada: Nevada’s project objectives concentrate on UAS (unmanned aerial systems) 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.
  • New York: The applicant plans to focus its research on sense and avoid capabilities for UAS and its sites will aide in researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested, northeast airspace.
  • North Dakota: 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.
  • Texas:  Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi plans to develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing.
  • Virginia: Virginia Tech plans to conduct UAS failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas.

The sites will be up and running by this summer. While they're authorized to fly drones until February 2017, the FAA has a 2015 deadlines to figure out how to integrate drones into commercial airspace.
Even with the 2015 deadline, civilian use of drones could be a few more years off. The test site program is already a year behind schedule.

New York's site, which will be headquartered at the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., will focus on sense and avoid technology as well as how drones will work their way into congested airspace, like that in the Northeast.

"Companies who are looking to test out their technologies for integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the commercial airspace safely are going to have to do work in one of those six test locations and we're going to be well positioned to get some of that work," said Rob Simpson, president of CenterState CEO.

CenterState formed the coalition of 40 some odd defense contractors and universities, known as NUAIR, that successfully bid for a test site. Simpson says central New York could see up to 3,000 new jobs in the next few years.

"This is an industry that we know is growing exponentially and [in] central New York, we want a piece of that opportunity," he said.

Some of the early uses for drones will be agriculture, so farmers can better monitor crops and livestock. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently sparked excitement by saying his online retail company is working to develop a package delivery system using drones.

But the potential uses go far beyond that, industry experts say.

"You can do anything that your mind thinks of," said Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "All those dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull jobs that human beings have had difficulty with since the dawn of man, now become easier and available."

There are safety and privacy concerns that have grown along with the drone industry. Each site will be required to publicly share safety and privacy procedures, the FAA said. Huerta says safety will be their main concern moving forward.