FAA Moves Forward with Drone Testing and Evaluation

Birds and commercial aircraft will soon have more company in the skies.

Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an ... unmanned aircraft system? UASs, more commonly referred to as “drones,” have captured the imagination of the general public in recent years.

Their use in Department of Defense operations is well known, but their potential use for services such as food delivery is perhaps best exemplified by the excitement around “TacoCopter,” a prank viral video of an imaginary startup that delivered piping hot Mexican food by drone.

There actually is a real version of the TacoCopter in the works — it was demoed at TechCrunch San Francisco 2013 — but it’s nowhere near ready for prime time. The good news is that with the FAA’s official announcement of six approved testing sites, we’re one step closer to a reality where the TacoCopter (or its imitators) could actually drop off a hearty lunch at our doorstep.

While the agency made clear in its announcement that approval of these tests “will not allow immediate access to the national airspace system for commercial and civil purpose,” it is a remarkably progressive step in robotics and automation systems technology.

In fact, we’ll probably have to wait quite a while for the drones to “touch the sky” outside of the tests they’re slated to run until February 2017. Then again, Congress has put pressure on the agency to come up with plan to integrate drones into the national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015 — so perhaps things will speed up if the tests go well.

The FAA outlined six test sites and their proposals in its official announcement:

  • University of Alaska: The University of Alaska’s proposal contained a diverse set of test sites in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test range locations in Hawaii and Oregon. The research plan includes the development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation. Alaska also plans to work on safety standards for UAS operations.

  • State of Nevada: Nevada’s project objectives focus on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. The applicant’s research will also include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS drones into the civil aviation environment and how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen. Nevada’s selection contributes to geographic and climatic diversity.

  • New York’s Griffiss International Airport: Griffiss International plans to work on developing testing and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight. The applicant also plans to focus its research on sense and avoid capabilities for UASs. Its sites will aid in researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested Northeast airspace.

  • North Dakota Department of Commerce: North Dakota plans to develop UAS airworthiness essential data and validate high reliability link technology. This applicant will also conduct human-factors research. North Dakota’s application was the only one to offer a test range in the temperate (continental) climate zone and included various airspaces which will benefit multiple users.

  • Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi: Texas A&M plans to develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of developing protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing. The selection of Texas A&M contributes to geographic and climactic diversity.

  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech): Virginia Tech plans to conduct UAS failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas. This proposal includes test site range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey.

So keep your eyes peeled: Having your burrito delivered by flying robots could soon be a dream come true.

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Jan 03 2014