Drones

FAA moves on drone test and research sites

Shutterstock image: UAV hover-copter.

As the Federal Aviation Administration was giving the green light to the last two test sites for unmanned aircraft in the U.S., it also released a final solicitation for a central facility that will work to technically integrate surging unmanned aircraft technology into U.S. airspace.

In the last few days, the FAA handed out the last of six certificates of waiver or authorization (COAs) to operate unmanned aerial system (UAS) test sites to teams in Virginia and New York. On Aug. 13, it said the Virginia Tech UAS test site program was ready to conduct research. On Aug. 7, it granted a COA to the Griffiss International Airport site in Rome, N.Y.

On Aug. 12, the FAA issued a final solicitation for a new Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The facility will identify current and future issues critical to safe UAS integration, including detect-and-avoid technology, control and communications, low-altitude operations safety, compatibility with air traffic control operations and training and certification of UAS pilots and other crewmembers.

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The FAA said it will initially enter into a five-year cooperative agreement with each Center of Excellence core member university. The agency sponsored a May event in Washington on the solicitation that drew representatives from more than 100 colleges and universities and 200 others from industry and government.

The COE solicitation and operational authorities granted in Virginia and New York mark the latest progress for the FAA's march toward opening U.S. skies to drone aircraft. The agency approved the first overland commercial drone operation in June and authorized the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi to begin test flights.

Exactly how the center will interact with the six test sites will be determined once the COE team is in place and develops a detailed research plan, according to the FAA.

Like university/think tank partnerships, the facility will bring experts and scientists together to conduct research and educate, train, and work with the agency on the challenges UAS technology pose for aviation.

University teams may include industry and other affiliates expected to support, conduct joint research efforts, and serve on the COE team. The deadline for teams to submit proposals is Sept. 15.

The FAA intends to support the center over the next 10 years with minimum funding of $500,000 per year. Universities will be required to match federal grants, dollar for dollar, from nonfederal sources, the agency said.

The Griffiss test site will evaluate methods for using UAS in agricultural environments in the crowded skies of the Northeast corridor, and assess the benefits of using different types of sensors, including visual, thermal and multispectral equipment. The Virginia facility has demonstrated the Smart Road Flyer, a low cost, low risk multi-rotor UAS being developed to support research in vehicle and highway systems. The FAA also gave the site permission to test a number of other models.

Eventually, said the FAA, the Griffiss site will also manage unmanned agricultural research flights from Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

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