Citing safety concerns and privacy issues, the Federal Aviation Administration has delayed indefinitely the selection of six U.S. sites for the testing of unmanned aircraft — one of which is hoped to be in the Dayton-Springfield region.
In a letter received late last week by the members of the Unmanned Systems Congressional Caucus, acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta singled out the need to first address privacy concerns that come with increasing the use of drones in the nation’s airspace.
The FAA was to have designated the six sites in December, but already had drawn the ire of the congressional caucus this summer when the agency failed to request site proposals by a July deadline.
“It’s unacceptable in my book that they’re delaying this,” U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek said Monday. “The reasons they’re giving us are the reasons they gave us four years ago.”
Winning a test-site designation is seen as key for the region to become a national hub for UAV research, development and manufacturing.
“I’ve spoken to a number of companies who’ve said they would love to build the planes right outside the door of where they could test them,” Austria said.
The frustration, he said, stems largely from the fact that the deadlines being missed by the FAA were of the agency’s own choosing. As it stands, the FAA has yet to ask for site proposals.
“They set their own timelines,” Austria said.
The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center has actively petitioned the FAA on drone surveillance concerns.
Ever-evolving UAV technology is designed to be invasive to privacy and is more efficient than manned aircraft because drones fly longer and closer to the earth, said Amie Stepanovich, an EPIC lawyer.
If privacy isn’t protected now, UAV surveillance will rise, she said.
“What drones are capable of today is entirely different even than a year ago,” she said.
Austria said he too wants to make sure unmanned aerial vehicles are safe to fly in manned airspace, which speaks to the need for test sites. The sites will determine if remotely piloted aircraft can safely be integrated into manned airspace by 2015.
As many as 30 sites may compete for six sites, Austria said.
“The purpose of the pilot program was to allow the FAA to supervise six sites in a controlled environment,” he said.
He noted the FAA already is issuing one-year authorizations for the limited flying of UAVs.
While the FAA has cited privacy as an issue, an industry representative said the federal agency’s role is to safely integrate unmanned craft into the skies, not regulate privacy.
But there’s no consensus on how, said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International in Washington, D.C.
“That’s a question a lot of us in the industry have been trying to answer and we don’t have a good answer yet,” she said.
Constitutional protections and legal precedent have provided privacy protections, she added, and have been applied to manned surveillance systems.
“The platform isn’t the issue,” West said. “There’s really no difference between manned and unmanned when you’re talking about privacy.”
While the association understands the FAA’s caution, the UAV community wants site selections to happen quickly.
“The industry obviously would like to see the process move faster because this technology has the potential to create jobs and save lives,” West said.
The Dayton Development Coalition will prepare the state of Ohio’s site bid whenever the FAA asks for proposals.
“We have done our homework and we have not been idle,” said Joseph Zeis, Coalition executive vice president and chief strategic officer. The region will tout Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Research Laboratory, university research and development, the regional aerospace industry, and UAV test areas, he said.
“Our goal is to be ready today or whether it’s six months from today,” he said. “We’re positioning Ohio to support the FAA in the integration of UAVs into the civilian airspace safely and effectively.”
Scott A. Sullivan, president of SelectTech Services Corp., a UAV manufacturer based in Centerville, expects the FAA will ask for site proposals within the next three months.
“… Every month that slips we’re another month behind in terms of what we want to accomplish” for UAV integration, he said. “Any delay inhibits our ability to accelerate that process.”
Sinclair Community College has FAA approval for restricted flying of small UAVs at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. The Ohio Army National Guard received approval this year as well to train at the Springfield airport with a hand-launched UAV known as a Raven, said Tom Franzen, economic development administrator for the city of Springfield.
The Air Force has FAA approval to fly developmental UAVs at the former DHL air hub in Wilmington.
It’s envisioned that UAVs would use existing facilities at the Springfield airport and the Wilmington Air Park for takeoff, then fly to military airspace in southern Ohio once used by F-16s from the Springfield Air National Guard Base.
Partly in hopes of luring UAV businesses, the city of Springfield is spending up to $267,000 to operate the air traffic control tower for another year at Springfield-Beckley that was rendered virtually obsolete when the Guard’s mission changed to remotely flying Predator drones based overseas.
Springfield also wants to build a new, $2.3 million hangar complex at the airport to attract drone developers. The state would pick up the bulk — $2 million — but the money is still pending, Franzen said.
While use of remotely piloted aircraft is synonymous with the military and CIA, unarmed drones for civilian use are predicted to become a $90 billion global industry in the next 10 years.
Earlier this summer, for example, at its annual Farm Science Review in Madison County, Ohio State University unveiled a hand-launched, 15-pound drone prototype that one day could be used by a farmer to monitor pesticide dispersal in a field and overall plant health.
Franzen said he expected a delay by the FAA in its site-selection process, and that it doesn’t change anything for the city.
Work will continue, he said, to attract new UAV companies and to support the ones already here, like Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a Fortune 500 defense contractor that moved UAV research jobs from Virginia to the Nextedge Applied Research and Technology Park east of Springfield.
“No one likes a delay,” Franzen said, “but it doesn’t deter us from our many efforts.”