There are already quite a few drones in use in U.S. airspace, but given that commercial drone usage remains off-limits, most of them are either operated by government agencies or for research purposes.
Today, however, the FAA has taken another step in its congressionally mandated process of integrating drones into the U.S. air traffic system. The FAA today announced six test sites in six states (out of 24 that applied) where it plans to test and develop systems for the safe integration of drones into the airspace system.
The focus here is clearly on testing. While the official plan is to integrate drones into the national airspace by 2015, it’s unlikely that the FAA will make this deadline and that we will see commercial drones flying alongside the usual Boeing 737s and Cessna 152s in the very near future. The idea here, after all, is to integrate them into the so-called “NextGen” air traffic control systems that are more famous for their false starts and budget overruns than anything else.
But before drones can be integrated into the current air traffic control system, the FAA wants to create standard procedures for things like lost links to the drone (which is somewhat akin to a plane losing radio contact with the air traffic control) and best practices for setting up ground-control stations, avoiding other traffic and how to certify and deal with the humans that actually operate the machines.
Among the six sites is Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York, which will handle test and evaluation processes and focus on integrations drones into the heavily congested northeast airspace. The site will be operated by an alliance of 40 public and private organizations from New York and Massachusetts. The alliance will also host a test site at Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
The University of Alaska will develop standards for state monitoring and navigation, using test site range locations in seven climatic zones ranging from Hawaii to Oregon (though it’s unclear which airports exactly the university plans to use for this). Nevada, which is already and the vanguard of allowing driver-less cars on its roads, will work on air traffic control procedures and the integration of drones into the regular airspace system.
Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi won support for its plan to develop procedures for handling airworthiness testing and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia Tech (who submitted a joint plan) will work on failure mode testing and risk evaluation.
Of course we’re not quite sure how the Amazon Prime Air drone delivery project fits in with the FAA’s plans just yet.