FAA Asks for Input on Six U.S. Drone Test Sites

Agency prepares for larger integration of UAVs in U.S. airspace.

Drone

Drone

Raven drone

The FAA is asking the public to weigh in on the criteria for six future unmanned aircraft test sites in the United States in anticipation of the larger integration of drones slated to take place in North American airspace over the next few years.

The comment period, which officially opens on Friday, will remain active for 60 days and aims to collect input regarding a wide variety of test site selection factors, such as research capabilities of the sites, geographic and climate considerations, as well as questions over whether the sites should be managed on the public or private level.

“Unmanned aircraft can help us meet a number of challenges, from spotting wildfires to assessing natural disasters,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a recent FAA press release. “But these test sites will help us ensure that our high safety standards are maintained as the use of these aircraft becomes more widespread.”

The move comes a month after the passage of legislation that requires the full opening of U.S. skies to drone aircraft in little more than three years. According to the FAA, neither the recent Defense nor FAA reauthorization bill provides funding for the mandate or the testing associated with it.

Unmanned aircraft are currently only allowed to operate within U.S. airspace with special authority granted by the FAA, but under the schedule outlined in the new legislation, American pilots could be sharing airspace with drones weighing up to 55 pounds in little more than two years.

In addition to the development of unmanned aircraft test sites, the FAA says it is also currently working on a proposed rule on small UAS, to be published at an unspecified date this year.

Despite the scope and pace of the planned integration, FAA officials maintain they are confident the agency will be able to accomplish the transition safely by drawing on industry expertise as well as data gleaned from more than 50 research studies on unmanned aircraft conducted by the agency since 2005.

A number of general aviation groups, however, have already spoken out with apprehension about several logistical and safety issues associated with the planned integration of drones as outlined in the recent law, pointing to the zealous pace of the plan, as well as the lack of proper collision avoidance technology, as key areas of concern.

For more on this topic, read Robert Goyer's "Drones a Coming Crisis for GA."