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FAA selected Six Drone Testing Sites

This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series,  which profiles interesting information, thoughts and research into using  drones, UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that Kike learns about during his travels.      On December 30, 2013, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has selected six UAS test site operators that will...

This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series which profiles interesting information, thoughts and research into using  drones, UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that Kike learns about during his travels. 


Dr. Sergei Lupashin, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control ¨walking¨ on the streets of Manhattan his recent creation, the Fotokite, a flying drone controlled by a leash. Photo © KIKE CALVO


On December 30, 2013, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has selected six UAS test site operators that will allow the agency to develop research findings and operational experiences to help ensure the safe integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace as they transition in what they refer to as a system featuring NextGen technologies and procedures. Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia are the states that will host these research sites. On these locations, researchers will develop and test new drone technologies to fly safely the same skies shared by commercial planes.

The agency’s activities must address the needs of a diverse aviation community while ensuring current users both in the air and on the ground remain safe.

¨This is an important milestone in the history on unmanned systems integration into the national airspace,¨said Dr Jerry LeMieux., President and Founder of Unmanned Vehicle University. ¨The test sites will be used to examine operations of UAVs in the vicinity of other manned aircraft. It proves that the US government is serious about commercializing the use of UAVs. The key technologies that will be developed are sense and avoid (a UAV collision avoidance system), a reliable control link, improvement in human factors (design and training) and UAS regulations. The FAA CONOPS has already been published and mentions that unmanned aircraft will be treated almost the same as manned aircraft.¨

The FAA announced the following six applicants had been selected to operate the UAS test sites. These six test applications achieve cross-country geographic and climatic diversity.

  • University of Alaska.  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 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 concentrate 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 into the civil 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 test 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 UAS and 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 a variety of different airspace 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 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.

“These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. In totality, these sites will help the FAA meet its UAS research goals of System Safety & Data Gathering, Aircraft Certification, Command & Control Link Issues, Control Station Layout & Certification, Ground & Airborne Sense & Avoid, and Environmental Impacts will be met. The FAA’s role is to ensure that each operator sets up a safe testing environment and to provide oversight that ensures each site operates under strict safety standards.

¨It is also important to realize that 95% of commercial UAVs will be small which the FAA defines as below 55 pounds,¨said Dr LeMieux.¨Theses types of UAVs are not likely to be used at the test sites because they will fly at very low altitude and not be a conflict with a manned aircraft. This is where the greatest number of businesses are starting up for commercial applications like agriculture, wind turbine inspection. solar panel inspection and hundreds of other applications. UAVs and sensors are getting smaller and more affordable so that anyone can afford start a UAV business. By August 2014, the FAA is required by Congress to pass the small UAV rule that will allow these business to thrive and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. I believe the economic impact will be in the tens to hundreds of billions of dollars.¨

¨While I am encouraged that the Test Site announcement was made in 2013, many are taken aback that the California UAS Portal was not chosen,¨said Patrick Egan, editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series and Drone TV. ¨Innovators from areas with the most growth and application potential, California, Oregon and Washington are left out of the data collection matrix.¨

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Learn more:

FAR/AIM 2014: Federal Aviation Regulations/Aeronautical Information Manual (FAR/AIM series)

Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge: FAA-H-8083-25A (FAA Handbooks series)

Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3A) (Second Edition)

Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Glider Flying Handbook (FAA Handbooks)

Aviation Weather (FAA Handbooks series)

Helicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A)

Risk Management Handbook: FAA-H-8083-2 (FAA Handbooks series)

Additional Readings:

Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start

Introduction to Unmanned Systems: Air, Ground, Sea & Space

UAV Fundamentals Executive Course

How to Start an Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) Business Course on DVD

Small UAV Construction

Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones: Learn about, buy and fly these amazing aerial vehicles

Military Robots and Drones: A Reference Handbook (Contemporary World Issues)

Kill Decision

The Media Source Presents Drones: Are They Watching You? Magazine

Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Rise of the Drones II: Examining the Legality of Unmanned Targeting: One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session, April 28, 2010

Drone Pilot (Cool Careers)

2011 Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Encyclopedia: UAVs, Drones, Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Weapons and Surveillance – Roadmap, Flight Plan, Reliability Study, Systems News and Notes

Futaba 9C: The User’s Guide (Modeller’s World)

Fly by Wire Aircraft: Fighters, Drones, and Airliners

Introduction to Remote Sensing, Fifth Edition


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Kike Calvo
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: