In April, the United States' first commercial drone test site opened in North Dakota. Since then, it's done, well, not a whole lot.
That's not the test site's fault: Officials at the independently-operated site insist they are ready and willing to fly, anxious to start helping the Federal Aviation Administration commercialize drones. But the FAA hasn't told them what, exactly, they're supposed to be testing.
In January, the FAA announced the six sites that would usher in the commercial future of drones in the United States. As Congress mandated, the FAA rushed to have at least one of those—North Dakota's—opened within 180 days of being announced.
The site's director, Bob Becklund and his staff rushed to open the doors and then, nothing. No directive, no requirements, not even a specialized process to legally allow them to test.
"The frustrating thing is they haven’t given us some very clear research areas," Becklund told me last week in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I was meeting with officials from the test site. "They say that’s coming. There are no specific data requirements. We've just been giving them what we think is relevant."
And now, there's evidence that the very idea of the test sites is being somewhat tossed out the window, leading administrators like Becklund to wonder what, exactly, they're here for. (Full disclosure: The North Dakota Department of Commerce paid for me to fly to the test site in order to learn more about the process.)
Photo by the author
The FAA is expected to announce today that it will give commercial drone exemptions to several Hollywood filmmakers, a move that completely bypasses the idea that the only way to operate a drone commercially is by getting some sort of certification from a test site.
"If the FAA [gives these exemptions to film companies], then what good are the test sites?" Becklund said.
That's not really clear to anyone, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that the FAA might allow its six drone test sites to languish.
The FAA held a very public competition between states looking to be designated as a test site, the idea being that states would pay for them (they receive no federal funding) in exchange for the commercial interest that would come to their state.
Well, since April, North Dakota's test site has flown just a couple dozen flights using quadcopters and other drones that are already used pretty extensively internationally and even in the United States by public entities and hobbyists.
In order to even fly those, three, sometimes four people have to be involved—a setup that even by-the-books researchers in the area told me is a little ridiculous. (Hobbyists have been flying these same models solo, and safely, for decades.)
Part of the reason for that is the test site—which had to jump through all sorts of safety hoops and standards in order to even exist in the first place—still has to go through the laborious certificate of authorization (COA) process everyone else does, just in order to be able to test anything. That process alone often takes months and, even then, the site needs a new COA each time it wants to test a new drone.
Testing aviation technology has historically meant wrecking stuff in a safe environment.
Other test sites are having the same issues. Earlier this year, an official with New York's test site told me he had no clear indication from the FAA on how to proceed. Brendan Schulman, a drone attorney in New York who is engaged in several lawsuits against the FAA, told me he's hearing the same thing from some of his sources.
"I recently had an intense discussion with an official at one of the other five test sites," Schulman said. "There is extreme frustration there because testing aviation technology has historically meant wrecking stuff in a safe environment and learning from the flight failures."
"The FAA's approach seems to be extremely conservative," he added. "The testing has to have a high level of safety assurance in order to be approved, which means that none of the testing is particularly useful to learning what works and what doesn't."
It's an ideal testing environment, in part, because there's not much to crash into. Image: Author
In the meantime, the test sites might as well be burning money: None of the test sites have much in the way of commercial clients yet, and there hasn't been the investment in capital that most states were expecting, because the FAA hasn't created a clear path for certification.
"The phone is ringing off the hook. People want to fly their planes legally, want to get them certified, but the FAA hasn't defined how to get a commercial certification yet," Becklund said.
Instead, the FAA has been issuing what is known as an "experimental" certification to those who want to fly on test sites, which doesn't let the operator earn money. There's also currently no way to go from having an experimental certificate to a full-on commercial exemption or approval. So far, the FAA has issued 71 "experimental" certificates, an FAA spokesperson told me. None of those have since been given commercial status.
The phone is ringing off the hook. People want to fly their planes legally.
The question, then, is: What is the FAA thinking?
The agency established these test sites in order to experiment with commercial drones, but it isn't letting the test sites do any testing. It hasn't even told the test sites what they are supposed to be testing. In fact, the only indication it has given anyone about what each test site will specialize in is from a press release in January, which noted that North Dakota would "validate high reliability link technology" and "conduct human factors research."
That came as news to Becklund: "The only time we've ever seen that is in the press release," he said.
North Dakota was selected in part because of its remoteness. Image: Author
There has been no elaboration from the FAA about what any of that means, no specifics about what it wants to see, and, in fact, there was no initial discussion about what each test site would be doing.
Researchers at the University of North Dakota, a partner at the test site, have long been researching many of the other areas of concern that the FAA considers important—will that expertise be called upon or tossed out? None of it is clear.
All this is to say that, at least thus far, the whole test site thing and, indeed, the FAA's commercial drone plan, has been completely underwhelming, frustratingly slow, and without coherence.
News came out yesterday that shed some light on all of this: The FAA never even considered the existence of drones when it decided to design its next-generation air traffic control system, a $5 billion program that's been underway for more than a decade now.
The FAA never planned on drones flying in American skies. It's no wonder that now that it's legally mandated to figure out a way to do so, it's bungling the job.