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Private drones cleared for flight over upstate New York

Ryan Delaney

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved the first private drone flights over upstate New York as part of a national testing program.

The Northeast UAS (unmanned aerial systems) Airspace Integration Research Alliance, or NUAIR, has spent the better part of the year waiting for the FAA's approval to begin testing remotely piloted aircraft.

NUAIR was one of the six sites selected by the FAA in late 2013 -- along with Alaska, Nevada, Texas, North Dakota and Virginia -- to operate test sites for about two years, as the federal government comes up with regulations for drone's integration in the national airspace.

Congress tasked the FAA with coming up with those regulations by September 2015, but it's widely accepted the deadline will be missed.

New York's site is the fifth to get clearance to operate; Virginia is still waiting for a go ahead.

The FAA granted NUAIR a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, or COA, something it will have to earn for each test operation. 

The first is for the Cornell Cooperative Extension to test drones over agricultural fields in western New York. The extension will be using the drone to detect pests and weeds as well as monitor soil erosion and crop patterns.

Flights will last one hour over two different fields and operate below 400 feet, according to the FAA.

It will still be another few weeks before drones take to the skies, NUAIR said. First, it will establish a safety review board to develop a specific flight plan. 

"We are excited to begin the process of establishing and reviewing a flight plan," said Larry Brinker, chief counsel for NUAIR, in a statement. "The successful completion of which enables us to begin test flights in the safest possible manner and focus on the research needed by Cornell Cooperative Extension."

NUAIR has a handful of other COA applications pending with the FAA. Operations are coordinated out of the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome. NUAIR also has approved airspace to use off the coast of Massachusetts.

The test site is promoted as a major economic asset for upstate New York. Proponents says having the test site will allow the region to be a hub for a growing, multi-billion dollar industry. Drones are talked about for being able to do everything from agriculture management to search and rescue operations.

Privacy advocates, though, worry about allowing drones to fly overhead without proper privacy regulations in place first. And there are safety concerns surrounding such a new technology.

The test site is being funded initially by state and federal grants as well as donations. The long-term financial stability will come from fees for use, according to NUAIR officials.