Governments vie for drone-based development

Published Feb 16, 2018 at 12:00pm

The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of narrowing down a list of applications from state and local governments that want to be a part of the nationwide Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration Pilot Program.

The three-year pilot program was launched last fall to solicit proposals for advanced UAS operations that will expand commercial drone operations and help the FAA determine how to safely integrate drones into the U.S. airspace.

New York state’s application to join the initiative to develop and enforce drone regulations has the enthusiastic backing of New York’s senior U.S. senator and three area U.S. representatives. A key New York participant in the pilot program would be the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, a coalition of private and public entities and academic institutions that manages the drone test site at Griffiss International Airport.

The will evaluate a variety of operational concepts, including night operations, flights over people, flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, counter-UAS security operations, reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft, as well as local management of UAS operations subject to FAA oversight.

There are about 150 lead applicants, which will result in “as many as 10” winners to be announced in May, according to an FAA spokesperson.

Along with the lead applicants – state, local or tribal governments – other public or private sector partners have applied as interested parties. There have been more than 2,800 interested-party applications, according to UAS Magazine.

The winning applicants will have access to expanded commercial drone operations in situations including beyond visual line-of-sight or over people. The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, will gain insight into drone operations and capabilities that will help guide future regulation.

Applicants have spoken about a wide range of UAS use cases – from farm work to assisting in crime fighting.

New York state’s proposal focuses on its diverse airspace and experience managing cross-border drone traffic with Massachusetts.

Griffiss International Airport was one of the original UAS test sites, and it opened up the first leg of a drone corridor last year where companies can test different technologies related to drones including sensors and data integration platforms.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer sent his endorsement letter to the FAA’s acting administrator, Daniel K. Elwell, while the one from Congresswomen Claudia L. Tenney, R-22, New Hartford, and Elise Stefanik, R-21, Willsboro, and Congressman John Katko, R-24, Syracuse, went to the FAA head, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao and President Donald Trump. The FAA is part of the Transportation Department.

The program follows a directive from Trump to initiate a pilot program to safely test and validate advanced drone operations through various partnerships across the country with oversight by the FAA. Industries that could see opportunities from the program include commerce, photography, emergency management, precision agriculture, and infrastructure inspections and monitoring.

“NUAIR and their outstanding team has put Central New York and the Mohawk Valley on the map as a leader in UAS research and testing – and being designated by the FAA to participate in the prestigious UAS Integration Pilot Program will launch the region’s efforts to the next level,” said Schumer.

“The pilot program helps the federal government accelerate safe, efficient UAS integration into our national airspace, and there is no better application to help achieve that mission than NUAIR,” the senator added.

The new program is meant to evaluate a variety of operational concepts, including night operations, flights over people, flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, counter-drone security operations, and reliability and security of data links between operators and aircraft, as well as local management of UAS operations subject to FAA review.

“As the premier UAS test site, Griffiss and our region have the talent and infrastructure necessary to support the IPP [Integration Pilot Program] site,” said Tenney. “Securing the designation as an IPP site will bolster our upstate economy and attract cutting-edge, high-tech companies to our area.

“I urge the Trump administration to consider upstate New York for this important designation and look forward to working alongside Reps. Katko and Stefanik throughout the process.”

In less than a decade, the potential economic benefit of integrating unmanned aerial systems into the nation’s airspace is estimated to equal up to $82 billion and create up to 100,000 jobs.

With NUAIR at the helm, Griffiss was selected by the FAA in 2013 as a test site for the incorporation of commercial drones into the U.S. airspace. Drone-related activities at the airport since then include flights by full-sized unmanned aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters.