Drones have a few new places to spread their wings. On Dec. 30, the FAA approved six “operators” to manage research and test sites for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). The FAA press release and supporting documents are available here.
Test site operators include public universities in Alaska, Texas, and Virginia, as well as a New York airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, and most broadly, the State of Nevada. But where exactly are the test sites? On this point the FAA is quite vague. Although at first glance the FAA documents indicate there are only six test sites (e.g. “FAA Selects Six Sites for Unmanned Aircraft Research“), a closer look reveals that there are six approved operators, and each operator may have several test sites, which might be located in more states than just the operator’s home state. For example, “The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon.”
The FAA only provides information on test site location at the state level, leaving it unclear whether each state will contain one or multiple test sites, which part(s) of each state will host the test sites, or even whether major population centers will be part of the test sites. It seems like a strange omission from FAA documents such as the UAS Test Site Fact Sheet, which has a section called “The Test Sites: Who, What, Where.”
Always view a holiday press release with suspicion. Is there a reason this couldn’t wait until Jan. 2? Does the FAA hope any cries of protest will be lost among the popping of fireworks and champagne corks?
Of course, the FAA puts out a lot of important information over the holidays – just look at this Dec. 24 press release: “FAA Gives Santa, Sleigh & Crew a GO for Launch.” Santa’s sled is Wi-Fi enabled this year, and he put his flight plan on an iPad. No, I am not making this up.
“We’re helping Santa fly smarter and faster while making sure he has a safe and successful mission” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. Oh, and Nevada is now a drone test site. Happy Holidays!
To add a further element of paranoia, the FAA’s UAS test site gurus, Alison Duquette and Les Dorr, Jr. have the same contact number as the FAA’s Santa liaison, Kristie “Elf on the Shelf” Greco. Does Santa plan to deliver presents by drone next year, Jeff Bezos-style? Or is this merely an FAA ploy to distract drone critics? (Welcome to FAA public relations. If you’d like to comment on drone testing, press 1. If you’d like to leave a message for Santa, press 2.)
The FAA’s drone announcement may be flying under the radar, but those who have followed the issue shouldn’t be surprised. In 2012, Congress passed bills requiring the FAA to establish the U.S. drone testing sites. New Mexico already had a test range, and NASA’s been testing drones in California since at least 2004.
The FAA solicited public comments on both the site selection process and privacy requirements. It also held a two-hour phone-in “public engagement session.” The transcript is worth a read. What sort of person calls the FAA on their lunch break to talk about drone privacy? Mostly people who build and sell drones. Also public privacy advocates. And then there’s this guy:
While I’m a lawyer, I am actively developing several business models to use unmanned aerial vehicles to provide safety and security for all Americans and especially to cut energy use by one-third, specifically I am looking at a business model that incorporates unmanned aerial vehicles to constantly monitor our major metropolitan areas so that we can turn off the lights at night . . . what everyone who talks about this issue of privacy fails to consider is that the right of self defense is a constitutional dimension, the right to deploy drones to surveill the conduct of people in and around your environs is constitutionally protected. So we have the entire debate flipped. What we should be talking about is how promptly and quickly the FAA is going to move to recognize the self defense rights of all Americans to deploy drones in many different varieties in order to provide self defense.
I think this commenter is saying that we should fill our cities with weaponized mini-drones so we can save money on streetlights. True, I might feel safer walking around at night with a Predator hovering over my shoulder. Except that I couldn’t walk around at night. Because there aren’t any lights.
Anyway, back to the test sites. I’ve noticed that all the early FAA documents, including the public comment notice, refer to six test sites, not six operators. This may seem like semantics, but it already appears to have expanded the states with test ranges from six to nine (University of Alaska also will test in Hawaii and Oregon, and Virginia Tech also will test in New Jersey, according to the fact sheet.) Expect some pushback on this in the new year.