Feds announce test sites for drone aircraft

LAS VEGAS — The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies.

Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, providing diverse climates, geography and air traffic environments, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

Drones have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the market. Many universities are starting or expanding drone programs.

The FAA does not currently allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede the project may take longer than expected.

The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to American airspace.

Representatives from winning states were jubilant about the FAA announcement and the likelihood that the testing will draw companies interested in cashing in on the fledgling industry.

“This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy,” said U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

The competition for a test site was robust, Huerta said, as 25 entities in 24 states submitted proposals. At least one of the six sites chosen will be up and running within 180 days, while the others are expected to come online in quick succession, he said during a conference call with reporters.

The designations don’t come with a financial award from the government.

While selecting the sites, the FAA considered geography, climate, ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, aviation experience and risk.

In choosing Alaska, the FAA cited a diverse set of test site locations in seven climatic zones. New York’s site at Griffiss International Airport will look into integrating drones into the congested northeast airspace.

Nevada offered proximity to military aircraft from several bases.

The state of North Dakota already has committed $5 million to the venture and named a former state Air National Guard Commander as its test site director.

“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,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

An industry-commissioned study has predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens drone restrictions on U.S. skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.

North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said the designation positions his state as a northern hub for unmanned systems and should attract students, researchers and aerospace technology companies.

The growing drone industry has critics among conservatives and liberals.

Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to “a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,” the American Civil Liberties Union declared in a report last December.

Huerta said his agency is sensitive to privacy concerns involving drones. Test sites must have a written plan for data use and retention and will be required to conduct an annual review of privacy practices that involves public comment.

More in Local News

District takes steps to secure school campuses

Safety measures have been enhanced at Hawthorne and Silver Firs elementary schools in Everett.

Local police join thousands honoring slain Canadian officer

Abbotsford Const. John Davidson was killed Nov. 6 in a shootout with a suspected car thief.

Hard work is paying off for Mariner High senior

Mey Ly has excelled in school since moving here from Cambodia; she also serves as an intrepreter.

1 arrested after SWAT team moves in on Marysville house

The incident was connected to an earlier robbery.

Darrington School Board race might come down to a coin flip

With a one-vote difference, a single ballot in Skagit County remains to be counted.

Herald photos of the week

A weekly collection of The Herald’s best images by staff photographers and… Continue reading

No easy exit from Smokey Point shopping complex

There’s just no easy exit on this one. A reader called in… Continue reading

County Council upholds ban on safe heroin injection sites

At Monday’s public hearing, more than 15 people spoke in support of the ban. No one spoke against it.

Lynnwood, Marysville, Sultan consider ban on safe injection sites

If approved, they would join Lake Stevens and Snohomish County, which have temporary bans.

Most Read