Word of drone activity at Griffiss Airport generates buzz

Published Mar 30, 2016 at 4:00pm

The growth of Griffiss International Airport as a hub for commercial drone activity caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal this week.

​Griffiss has space and facilities to spare, and local officials look forward to drone-related activities generating jobs and other positive economic impacts.

The Federal Aviation Administration picked the county airport in late 2013 as one of six test sites for commercial drones, a critical step for the flight of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies. Drones have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the U.S. market.

The FAA does not now allow widespread use of commercial drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines.

The nonprofit Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, better known as NUAIR, coordinates about 90 business, government and academic institutions collaborating on regional drone efforts.

Sense-and-avoid capabilities for unmanned vehicles are a focus of the work at Griffiss. Instrumentation to track unmanned aircraft at the former Air Force base and surrounding region has been installed. This is an important issue for the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry; there were more than 1,000 complaints in 2015 from aircraft pilots and others about interference from drones when manned planes were landing.

“To be able to allow the Domino’s pizza delivery drone to keep from hitting the Amazon package drone at the corner still has to be developed,” Larry Brinker, executive director and general counsel of NUAIR, told the newspaper.

​The testing capability is the first of its kind at any unmanned aircraft systems test site in the country, making Griffiss a strategic location for the emerging industry, officials say.

Besides work overseen by Griffiss site manager NUAIR, companies like Lockheed Martin Corp. and Aurora Flight Sciences are using the Griffiss location to conduct their own tests. Their teams’ periodic visit mean car rentals, hotel stays and restaurant visits.

Separately, Oneida County is a contract partner with NASA to help with the federal agency’s unmanned aerial system research, including traffic management. The agreement is for up to $5 million over five years. The airport hires subcontractors to do the work.

The big need and challenge in developing a traffic-management system is to help drones fly safely beyond the line of sight, said the Wall Street Journal article.

Also, ProDrones USA, an expansion to Canadian company AVYON, is locating at Griffiss, through Mohawk Valley Community College, under the START-UP NY program. AVYON holds the exclusive rights to manufacture, distribute and develop custom solutions for drones augmented with data processing techniques.

Under the company’s authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct test flights in the U.S., ProDrones will create five new jobs and invest $1 million.

Other companies have expressed interest in Griffiss too.

The FAA chose Griffiss and NUAIR out of 25 proposals from teams in 24 states. The designation came with no major funding, but it provided a morale boost for the region, Robert Simpson, president of CenterState CEO, told the Wall Street Journal. The area has been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs that once offered reliable employment.

“This is a region that doesn’t always rise to the top,” Simpson said. “What business leaders have always wanted is a way to be at the vanguard.”

“Since its inception, as the only UAS test site in the Northeast we have seen over 100 tests done,” said County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. in his State of the County Address in early March. “We have installed a $4 million range instrumentation system, the first of its kind in the United States. We have become a contracted partner with NASA, sharing test data to ensure safety for everyone in our national airspace.

“In addition, through Start-Up NY and MVCC we have seen a new company begin UAS operations in Rome.”

The largest use case for commercial drones in the immediate future will be in construction, according to a report released this month by Goldman Sachs, primarily, in surveying and mapping construction sites. Goldman Sachs estimates that total global spending on drones in the commercial market will be $100 billion over the next five years.

In the U.S., drones will be most widely used in agriculture, the report says, generating $1.4 billion over the next five years. 

Drones in all industries, from agriculture to construction to real estate to cinematography, generally can offer improved accuracy, frequency and turnaround time from piloted flights or satellite surveys, say backers of unmanned aerial systems.