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Drone site means 'a new era' in aviation here in New York

A company has already signed on to use upstate New York's newly designated commercial drone testing site just days after the state was named as one.

The Federal Aviation Administration still has to give final approval for testing to begin, something economic and elected officials hope will happen soon.

Sen. Charles Schumer and others praised their work Friday towards landing one of just six test sites from the FAA, staging drone demo flights at Syracuse University. The other states are Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

The test sites are part of the FAA's role in figuring out how to integrate civilian drones into the national airspace by the end of 2015.

The coalition of 40-plus colleges and contractors behind the bid, called NUAIR, will be based at Griffiss Airport in Rome, N.Y. It has an annual operating budget of $1.5 million and plans to spend three times that on facility upgrades. That money will come from public-private partnerships, membership, and possibly fees for companies to use the facilities.

New York City-based Flyterra will be NUAIR’s first client. Previously, the company was testing in France and Canada.

Schumer and the others were quick to emphasize the jobs and economic potential of the site, passing over  safety and privacy concerns.

The Democrat compared it all to the days of the Wright Brothers.

"We at a new era, the dawn of a new era and we are in the door first. And now let’s walk through it together," he said from inside Manley Field House at Syracuse University.

As for those privacy concerns, Rep. Dan Maffei (D-Syracuse) says there's an advantage to hosting the site, because it will be New Yorkers designing the technology and guidelines.

"We’re going to be the ones doing the research to not only do the technology, but also set the kind of rules for which these are going to be used and make sure they do protect civil liberties," he said.

Schumer says it will be largely up to the FAA to write up those specific privacy and safety rules.

But all that's not enough for privacy advocates like Barrie Gewanter of the Syracuse chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I would rather not see a Wild Wild West where any commercial entity can throw drone helicopter into the air or a drone aircraft into the air without any limitations or guidelines," she said. "I think that would be woefully out of balance."

She says companies wanting to fly their drones should have to agree to a privacy statement, but Schumer said that would be like putting the cart before the horse.

Gewanter says she’s worried legal oversight of commercial drone operators will be too limited.

The FAA will require the agencies running the test sites to have a privacy statement available to the public. Schumer says it will also be up to the agency to design privacy guidelines for drone use.

The FAA has to have at least one site operating by the summer and Schumer says he wants to make sure New York’s is the first to receive formal approval.