Ohio is pinning its hopes on becoming one of six test sites for unmanned aircraft, but the Federal Aviation Administration made it clear Thursday that it will be some time before commercial use of such aircraft enters the mainstream.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said currently the FAA approves use of such aircraft — commonly referred to as drones — on a case-by-case basis. They’re used for everything from firefighting to search and rescue to border patrol, he said.
But broader commercial use remains out of reach, in part because of safety and privacy concerns.
“We have to make sure we have the appropriate safeguards in place to understand how they operate and how they interact with the aircraft that exist in the national airspace system today,” he said.
He made the comments on the same day the FAA released a road map charting out the regulatory and other requirements needed for long-term domestic use of drones. The agency expects to continue permitting grants for unmanned aircraft on a case-by-case basis for the immediate future despite a congressional directive to permit their widespread use by Sept. 30, 2015.
“Government and industry face significant challenges as unmanned aircraft move into the aviation mainstream,” acknowledged Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The agency also announced that it would ask test site operators to determine and release privacy plans that would be made available to the public, and stopped far short of creating its own policy to address concerns that drones might collect intrusive information during their flights.
“The FAA does not have any specific authority to regulate (privacy) policy and we’re not seeking that,” Huerta said. “We do feel we have a responsibility to create a forum for the privacy question to be debated, and that is what we’re doing.
“We’re not specifically regulating what potential users would be looking at in a test site, but what we are doing is telling the public what they intend to do.”
There are safety concerns as well, including what would happen if an aircraft lost contact with its operator or whether drones would be able to effectively avoid other aircraft.
Once it overcomes its challenges, Huerta predicted that some 7,500 drones would be flying through U.S. air space within the next five years.
The safety concerns appear to make the six test sites even more vital. The FAA received 25 proposals representing 26 states and plans to announce its six sites at the end of this year. Ohio, in conjunction with Indiana, has lobbied hard for selection, exhibiting at industry conventions and making the case that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the state’s thriving aerospace industry make them a logical choice.
The two states submitted their 6,000-page application to become an FAA test site in May, two years after a group of Ohio lawmakers pushed for language in an FAA reauthorization bill calling for the establishment of FAA test sites.
The state argues that Ohio is a pioneer in unmanned aircraft thanks to Dayton businessman Charles Kettering, who developed the first armed UAV, the Kettering Bug, in 1917.
“We need to make sure we use these sites to collect the best data that we possibly can,” he said.
Huerta gave few details on the site selection process, saying simply that a range of geographic, technical and climactic issues will be under consideration. But, “we expect to meet our deadline at the end of this year,” he said.
The Kettering “Bug”
Ohio hopes its rich aviation heritage — including the unmanned Kettering Aerial Torpedo, nicknamed the “Bug” that Charles Kettering invented in 1917 — will help propel the Federal Aviation Administration to name Ohio and Indiana as one of six test sites for unmanned aircraft.
The Dayton-Wright Airplane Co. built fewer than 50 Bugs before the war ended, though it was never put into combat use. The scarcity of funds in the 1920s halted development.
Key facts about Kettering’s “Bug”:
Armament: 180 pounds of high explosives
Engine: De Palma 4-cylinder of 40 hp
Maximum speed: 120 mph
Range: 75 miles
Span: 14 ft. 11 1/2 inches
Length: 12 ft. 6 inches
Height: 4 ft. 8 inches
Weight: 530 pounds loaded
Source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force