Griffiss remains sky-high over drone testing at airport


Griffiss International Airport continues to play a critical role in positioning Central New York as a leader in the future of unmanned aerial systems. 

That was the upbeat assessment of Aviation Commissioner Russell O. Stark when he spoke at the Mohawk Valley EDGE board meeting this week.

The county airport was designated as a drone test site by the Federal Aviation Administration in late 2013. Since the, the official said, more than 1,100 flight operations have been conducted. There are seven such sites across the country.

Griffiss, with high-definition air traffic surveillance, state-of-the-art data collection and analysis capabilities, is the foundation for testing and certification of drone detect-and-avoid systems to meet future FAA standards and support the safe integration of commercial drones into U.S. airspace. 

The idea is to figure out how drones can safely operate in the air alongside piloted aircraft.

In 2016, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the creation of a 50-mile corridor customized for drones as an attempt to lure companies to Central New York. The corridor between the former Griffiss Air Force Base and Syracuse is going to cost $30 million, and is expected to be completed in 2018.

The test site at Griffiss, managed by the NUAIR Alliance, is undergoing expansion to cover 15,000 square miles of New York airspace, creating a world-class beyond-visual-line-of-sight test and development facility for the FAA and the drone industry. 

Additionally, Stark said the state is part of two specific initiatives.

Project UAS Secure Autonomous Flight Environment, also called U-SAFE, is being developed at the test site to further catalyze and expand the economic opportunities being created by this industry. It will create a low-altitude air traffic control system for safe drone operation, and will allow for testing of small UAS and commercial applications to include package delivery, railway and power line inspection, and precision agriculture and security applications, specifically surrounding airports. 

The U-SAFE project also establishes a new testing center for drone airworthiness and cybersecurity. Called NUSTAR, or National Unmanned Aerial System Standardized Testing and Rating, the center will offer independent performance and safety benchmark testing for drones and drone-related products. The hope is that the presence of NUSTAR will help draw industries involved in the production and use of drones to Central New York.

Stark said NUSTAR is similar to Underwriter Laboratories, or UL, which is a not-for-profit testing company that conducts safety and quality tests on a broad range of products, from fire doors to closed-circuit cameras.

“When they (New York state) decided to come into the ballgame, they came in a big way,” said the commissioner.

During his remarks Stark listed several drone accomplishments at Griffiss since 2013. They included:

  • In June, Griffiss simultaneously flew four remotely piloted machines from a command center on simulated missions for the first time. It was part of a job for NASA , which has contracted with the FAA test sites to further test and refine its unmanned aircraft systems traffic management technologies.
  • Aurora Flight Sciences successfully flew its Centaur optionally piloted aircraft in multiple pilotless flights from the airport. The flights marked the first time any large-scale, fixed-wing aircraft flew unmanned at any of the U.S. drone test sites.
  • A team led by Lockheed Martin Corp. has successfully tested a pair of unmanned aerial drones that its developers hope can be used to put out large fires without endangering the lives of pilots. Lockheed Martin used a helicopter drone to airlift and dump 24,000 pounds of water onto a controlled fire set at the airport.
  • DJI, a global leader in the production of small drones, held the finals of its 2016 SDK Challenge at Griffiss. Ten teams competed for a $100,000 prize to see whose software could best launch drones from the bed of a moving vehicle, guide them through a simulated disaster site to identify victims and return to land back on the vehicle.

“Pretty impressive for a little test site in Rome, New York,” said a smiling Stark as his presentation neared its end.

County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. spoke briefly after the commissioner.

He noted that drones were launched in July to survey flooding from the air when parts of the county were drenched by heavy rains in a short amount of time.

“You don’t see everything,” he said. “There’s a lot going on and it is a work in progress.”


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