Shadow 2000 UAV hurls off its hydraulic launcher, Minnesota, 2013, via.
In just two months, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to announce its selection of six drone test sites, a long-awaited milestone in the federal government’s push to open up the national airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles, and unlock the economic potential of the growing commercial drone industry. States are now lobbying hard for a piece of the action, making final appeals to convince the FAA that they are poised to become the new Silicon Valley of drones.
Twenty-five teams from 24 states have submitted applications to host the test sites, which are intended to help the FAA come up with regulations and safety guidelines by its September 30, 2015 deadline. The FAA will monitor the UAS test sites closely to figure out how best to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, and provide a modicum of order to the commercial drone market before the floodgates open.
Now, as the December 2013 deadline for the agency’s decision approaches, applicants are scrambling to make their proposals more attractive, parading local reporters through research centers and enlisting support from high-profile business leaders and elected officials. Governors from several states, including North Dakota, Ohio, Wyoming, and Utah, have made personal pleas for their respective test sites, and even powerful senators like Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and New York Democrat Chuck Schumer have gone to bat for their home-state applicants, setting up meetings between high-ranking FAA officials and local project leaders.
The high-profile politicking underscores just how much potential states see in the commercial drone market. While states will not receive any federal funding for their drone test sites, the selected projects are expected to be a huge boon for their local economies, creating thousands of new jobs and generating millions of dollars in new tax revenue. The drone industry is expected to grow to $11.4 billion over the next decade, according to some estimates, and the latest FAA forecast projects that 7,500 drones will be flying in US airspace by 2018.
So far, the FAA has been tight-lipped about its selection process. Federal guidelines mandate that the FAA consider factors like geographical and climate diversity, air traffic and population density, and ground infrastructure, as well as the types of UAS research that the test sites plan to conduct. That means, for example, that there probably won’t be more than one drone test site focusing on precision agriculture in the Midwest, or on detecting activity along the Southwest border.
“It’s difficult to get a sense of who the frontrunners are,” said Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “Our position is that states that have passed legislation limiting [UAS] usage may have hindered their chances of being selected... But with politics, you never know.” (Four of the states that submitted test site applications have passed laws restricting warrantless drone surveillance by law enforcement, and two states—Idaho and Texas—have banned drone surveillance by private citizens.)
Still, in light of the FAA criteria it is possible to pick out a few of the top contenders who have a shot at being selected. North Dakota, in particular, looks like a lock to pick up one of the six slots, due in large part to its extreme climate and sparse population. The state’s vast rural expanses are ideal for testing UAS applications in farming and the energy sector, including in inclement weather, with minimal chance of harming nearby human beings. It also helps that North Dakota already has an established drone policy infrastructure (it was the site of the first drone-assisted arrest in the US), and that the state’s test site applicant, the University of North Dakota’s Center for UAS Research, Education, and Training, established the country’s first four-year UAS degree program. North Dakota was even among the lead sponsors at the drone industry’s annual trade show in Washington, DC, this year, right alongside Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
“We just feel fairly confident that we’re going to be selected as one of the test sites,” the Center’s director, Alan Palmer, told Motherboard. “We’ve played a leadership role in aerospace, both manned and unmanned, and we’re one of the most significant players in the region in this field.”
Another favorite is Ohio, which has collaborated with Indiana on a test site located outside of Dayton. Unlike North Dakota, the Dayton site is more densely populated, which would give the FAA the opportunity to examine UAS applications and safety in a manageable urban setting. The Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Testing Site has also built strong partnerships with private UAS firms and Dayton’s Air Force Research Laboratory, and both states have strong supply chains that can help drive the development of the local commercial drone industry.
Downtown Dayton, Ohio. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
In the South, the frontrunner appears to be the Huntsville, Alabama, test site proposed jointly by Alabama and Tennessee. Huntsville has strong aerospace and defense infrastructure and has been hosting an annual drone symposium for more than two decades, which indicates that a drone test site would benefit from deep regional expertise. In the West, San Diego’s proposal is probably the strongest contender, due to the city’s extensive UAS industry and the geographical diversity of the test site, which extends from the US-Mexico border to the Arizona border and the Pacific.
In the Plains, both Texas and Oklahoma have both put forward strong proposals, although Texas’ new law restricting private drone use— the first of its kind—may scare off the FAA. And in the East, Schumer has virtually guaranteed that Central New York’s bid will be selected—he even made sure that the FAA selected six sites, instead of four, to make sure that his home-state’s bid would be chosen.