The Federal Aviation Administration issued a request for proposals (RFP) yesterday for six ranges that will be used to test unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as part of the government’s plan to integrate the technology into national airspace.

Establishing the test sites is a component of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 signed by President Barack Obama a year ago with the goal of fully integrating UAVs into the airspace by 2015.

The RFP, which arrived months later than anticipated, will soon be accompanied by a request for comments regarding privacy concerns related to the operation of unmanned systems in national skies.

The FAA hopes to award the sites by the end of September.

Opening skies to UAVs has a host of possible uses, including law enforcement, firefighting and other public safety issues, or infrastructure, environmental and agricultural monitoring, assessing the impact of a natural disaster, or even to carry cargo. It is also a potentially lucrative opportunity for UAV makers who have been mostly dependent on the military for business.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, in a letter accompanying the release of the RFP, said he is confident his agency will be able to safely integrate UAVs, and compared the mission to the FAA’s effort in the 1950s to bring jet aircraft into national airspace.

“While the expanded use of (unmanned aerial systems) presents great opportunities, it also presents significant challenges since unmanned aircraft are inherently different from manned aircraft,” Huerta said. He said the FAA is prepared to work with state and local authorities as well as UAV experts to “achieve our mission of the safe, timely, and efficient integration of” UAVs.

Huerta, citing industry forecasts, said the market for UAVs could reach $90 billion over the next decade.

The association that represents the UAV industry in Washington strongly backed the FAA bill and released a statement welcoming the RFP.

The “announcement by the FAA is an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft, and creating thousands of American jobs,” Michael Toscano, the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said. “Whether it is helping search and rescue teams, assisting in disaster response, or aiding scientific research, unmanned aircraft extend the human reach and allow us to accomplish dangerous and difficult tasks safely and efficiently.”

Bringing more UAVs into U.S. airspace does have critics concerned their presence could impose on individual privacy. In addition to cameras, UAVs can carry highly sophisticated infrared and imaging technology and wireless network detectors that could be used to snoop. Others have expressed public safety concerns and skepticism over whether the technology will be sufficiently advanced to avoid accidents or mid-air collisions.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) in January said the bill brings with it a “host” of complicated legal issues that will have to be resolved. The CRS report said the government will need to address the regulatory framework for permitting the use of UAVs in national airspace, as well as the tricky issue of privacy rights and flying the aircraft over private property.

Challenges will play out for government and private operators of drones that could have constitutional implications, such as balancing the ability of news organizations to gather information under the First Amendment, while protecting against what might be considered unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment, the Jan. 30 CRS report said (Defense Daily, Feb 5).