The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this month issued a Screening Information Request (SIR) 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 the national airspace.
Establishing the test sites is a component of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 signed by President Obama a year ago with the goal of fully integrating UAVs into the airspace by 2015.
“The UAS test site program will help the FAA gain a better understanding of operational issues, such as training requirements, operational specifications, and technology considerations, which are primary areas of concern with regard to our chief mission, which is ensuring the safety and efficiency of the entire aviation system,” the agency says.
The SIR, which is also known as a Request for Proposals in other federal agencies, arrived months later than anticipated and was shortly followed by an advance copy of a Request for Comments on the agency’s “proposed approach for addressing the privacy questions raised by the public and Congress with regard to the operation of unmanned aircraft systems within the test site program,” the notice for comments says. The FAA also plans to host a webinar to solicit comments from the public and stakeholders on the proposed privacy program.
The FAA hopes to award the sites by the end of September. Factors that will be considered in selecting the ranges include geographic and climate diversity, as well as the location of necessary ground infrastructure to support the sites and research needs.
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 SIR, says 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 says. He says 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, says 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 SIR.
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,” says Michael Toscano, the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “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.