Part of the Federal Aviation Administration's goal of safely integrating unmanned aerial systems into the National Airspace System has been to select six different sites in the U.S. that will conduct UAS research and testing. The FAA mandates that each site operator must safely accommodate parties interested in testing different technologies at the location.
Larry Brinker, executive director and general counsel at the nonprofit Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research (NUAIR) Alliance, tells Unmanned Aerial Online that the site located at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., is ready to work with the bubbling UAS sector.
The NUAIR Alliance manages the site in New York, which also includes airspace in Massachusetts. Brinker says although the FAA considered the New York site to be one of the six locations ‘fully qualified’ to support the agency's work, the FAA did not explain exactly why the site was among those chosen out of a pool of 52 applicants.
He suspects, however, that the site's ‘quality of airspace’ and ‘quality of coalition’ were factors; the NUAIR Alliance involves over 40 partners from several different fields.
The site, which allows testing at Griffiss in Class B airspace under the control of the air traffic control tower, as well as in what Brinker calls ‘identified’ airspace in Massachusetts, was the fifth to come online. The FAA deemed the Virginia test site operational only several days after, but the first green light from the FAA came nearly four months earlier for North Dakota.
As for any particular rhyme or reason to the order, Brinker says it was simply when each was ready to come onboard. Although the sites are spread throughout the U.S., he explains that they are all essentially a team, with each member having its own ‘strengths and abilities.’
‘We're all working towards a common goal,’ he says, which is, of course, collecting data for the FAA so that it can safely integrate UAS into the NAS. For instance, Brinker says, the executive directors of each site come together for a conference call every two weeks to discuss progress and challenges.
Anthony Foxx, U.S. secretary of transportation, initially said in a release that the ‘two important missions’ for the New York test site are ‘the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace’ and the ‘agricultural research’ that could potentially have ‘far-reaching benefits to farmers in New York and across the nation.’
Brinker stresses that 80% of all small UAS (under 55 lbs.) will be used for agricultural purposes in the future. He says his team is already working with several organizations, including the Cornell Cooperative Extension, which is an agricultural research arm of Cornell University, and has discussed plans with other farms about research and development.
Although testing has not yet taken place at the site, Brinker expects the first round to occur in a matter of weeks. The FAA issued a two-year Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for the site operators to use a PrecisionHawk Lancaster Platform UAS, which will first be used over crop lands in western New York to collect data for farmers to manage growth patterns and assess crop conditions. He expects many other varieties of aircraft to be used in future testing.
The site is run by a main group of six professionals but manages its staff on a ‘project-by-project basis,’ Brinker explains, and the team is expecting an on-site visit from the FAA in October, following the agency's day-long visit in the spring.
In order to accomplish safe integration, Brinker encourages anyone who is interested in contributing research by testing his or her UAS or sensor package to simply talk to the organization and ask for permission.
‘They just need to contact us, and we will walk them through the process,’ he explains.
In order to get permission to test, an individual or a company must obtain one of two things: a COA or a Special Airworthiness Certificate.
The standards for obtaining permission, Brinker says, vary according to each test, but the safety risk management team will analyze each potential test individually and will decide whether or not a flight can take place on-site or if any changes must be made in order to do so. An independent safety review board also looks at criteria such as the environment in which the test will take place, the weather conditions and how much experience the crew has in performing the test, he says.
However, as for allowing anyone physically on the site, Brinker says the ‘utmost requirement’ is safety, with an ‘eye towards’ a company's proprietary information. He explains many companies have invested significant capital in their UAS operations and are not, in turn, keen about sharing their secret sauce.
Therefore, he urges anyone to simply ask NUAIR for permission. ‘We're pretty honest; we'll tell you if we can do something for you or not.’
Testing at the site has not begun, but Brinker says NUAIR has received an ‘endless line’ of requests from both individuals and companies with an interest in using the site. No authorizations have been granted yet.
As for how long the site's operations will last, Brinker says Congress will most likely amend the law that says testing will continue until at least Feb. 13, 2017, as it is not at all possible to finish the job before then. In fact, it will be ‘quite some time’ – maybe even another 10 years, he says.
Besides the main goals of agricultural research and safe integration, Brinker wants everyone to keep in mind that ‘part of this exercise is to stimulate thinking about unmanned aerial systems.’
His recommendation for potential testers is to remember not to focus on the vehicle itself but, rather, everything that makes up the system: e.g., the control systems, the communications and all of the other electronics.
‘There are many, many business sectors out there that have to participate,’ he notes.
To meet Foxx's goal of ‘safe integration into the national airspace,’ the main roadblock – and most important part of the research, Brinker believes – is developing a sense-and-avoid technology so that, simply put, unmanned aircraft avoid collisions. Only several weeks ago did a UAV operator crash his vehicle into hot springs at Yellowstone – not to mention the various reports of recent near-collisions with manned aircraft.
‘Until we solve those issues of sense and avoid,’ he warns, ‘there can't be full integration into the National Airspace System.’