BY SKYLER SWISHER, STAFF WRITER
DAYTONA BEACH — Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University wants to make Florida one of only six test sites that will study how to integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace by 2015, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said Thursday.
The university, which has one of three unmanned systems undergraduate degree programs in the country, touted the region’s benefits in comments submitted to the FAA.
As of now, only a few drones fly for civilian purposes, but the FAA estimates 10,000 new commercial drones could join air traffic by 2017.
Law enforcement, land surveyors and news organizations are eying unmanned aircraft, which can operate at a lower cost than helicopters.
“Unmanned aircraft can help us meet a number of challenges, from spotting wildfires to assessing natural disasters,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement. “But these test sites will help us ensure that our high safety standards are maintained as the use of these aircraft becomes more widespread.”
A bill passed by Congress this past year directed the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation’s skies.
The FAA will consider more detailed proposals in July and select the test sites by December, the spokesman said.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Submitted Recommendation
In an April 2012 news story, Bloomberg News reported that the UAS industry in the United States is valued at $5.9B with an estimated increase to $11.3B by 2021 – less than 10 years away. With this rapid development the need for UAS use in civil operations and competition in UAS manufacture and operations from other countries such as Israel, it is imperative that the FAA immediately set standards to integrate UAS into the national airspace, as well as designate national test sites to facilitate the process.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University recommends the FAA consider the strengths of Florida as a possible national test site. In reviewing the criteria for consideration, it is apparent that Florida is the perfect for a national test site.
First, Florida has large designated areas of restricted airspace from which to begin testing activities. These areas include but are not limited to: the area around Kennedy Space Center, the Avon Park Bombing Range, and the Ocala National Forest Bombing range. These areas have already been used for UAS testing in the case of KSC UAS operations (Customs and Border Protection). Thus, their safety record in UAS air operations is already proven.
Second, Florida also has areas of commercial traffic, as well as General Aviation traffic and busy air corridors. While perhaps not useful immediately, at some point UAS testing must occur in real commercial traffic in order to be proven safe. If one state can offer both safe testing in restricted airspace and later testing in commercial corridors, the FAA has the best of all scenarios.
Third, Florida offers partnerships with NASA at KSC, as well as the Air Force and Navy, all of whom are engaged in UAS operations or have set policy and procedures of their own for UAS operations in Florida. The start-up time for these partnerships is cut significantly, since NASA and DOD already are prepared in this area.
Fourth, the FAA has already established the Florida NextGen Testbed in Daytona Beach, Fla. This national facility is a public-private partnership designed to provide R&D testing and demonstration of NextGen concepts for the FAA, with particular focus on near to mid-term implementation. It is a perfect facility to use to monitor testing and demonstrations at a Florida UAS test range.
Fifth, Florida has the country’s only Aeronautical University in Embry-Riddle. Embry-Riddle has one of three unmanned systems undergraduate degree programs in the entire country. Additionally, ERAU has a program in robotics focused on UAS, as well as significant research in aerospace and software engineering related to UAS.
If this isn’t enough, within the state of Florida are three additional public Universities that are research intensive and also engaged in UAS and related activities. These academic institutions will provide the basis for a growing UAS economy in the state. Combine these capabilities for educating UAS employees and conducting R&D work with the infrastructure provided by KSC, the Florida NextGen Testbed and DOD installations across the state and there is no stronger area for a test range.
Lastly, Florida provides a tropical, climate with plenty of area for over-water and ocean testing. Florida also has significant variations in weather and natural disasters, including hurricanes and wildfires that will be useful in UAS testing. Any way the government reviews areas for potential test sites, one cannot deny that Florida meets and exceeds all the published criteria.