New UAS testing, training facility proposed


Eric Petermann/Herald-Review

SIERRA VISTA — Using some of the same people and agencies that sought to land federal designation as a test site for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), the Sierra Vista Economic Development Foundation (SVEDF) said Tuesday that it will provide businesses with testing and training facilities for commercial applications of UAS technology at a site near Whetstone.

Mignonne Hollis, executive director of the SVEDF, said a Tucson-based company, Cyclone ADG, is among the first of several firms that plan to test its UAS product at local facilities. Cyclone is developing its system for safety applications, to assist firefighters, police, soldiers and other “guardians,” by providing them with “ … unmanned, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR systems,” according to the company’s website.

The SVEDF has acquired a 160-acre parcel in the Whetstone area for its testing site, where it plans to develop two runways and construct a hanger, Hollis said. The foundation is also pursuing a partnership with the Southeastern Arizona Economic Development Group to include the Benson Municipal Airport as a second location for runway space, and may eventually include the Bisbee/Douglas International Airport as a third location, as the testing and training program develops.

“The more runways we have, the better,” Hollis said. “We want to put all of the usable airspace in Cochise County to good use.”

Hollis said the SVEDF program is targeting smaller companies that are in the experimental stages of product development and will benefit from the expertise available through the agency’s partnership with local and state organizations specializing in the UAS industry.

SVEDF has contracted with a Sierra Vista company, Thompson-Wimmer, which will serve as a test site manager and will be available to companies in need of technical expertise, Hollis said. Thompson-Wimmer made significant contributions to the state proposal that sought to garner one the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) six test sites for the commercial applications of UAS.

“I have worked closely with Trish Thompson and Brian Wimmer while we were working on the state test site bid to the FAA, so I was able to experience their invaluable level of expertise in the UAS industry first-hand,” Hollis said.

Entitled “Four Pillars,” Hollis said the exact location of the 160-acre facility is confidential, which she indicated will be an advantage to companies developing new commercial products.

“That’s an important feature for companies that want to have a competitive advantage when they bring a new technology to the marketplace,” Hollis said.

SVEDF is envisioning the test site as a place where UAS companies can go to test what they’re working on, learn more about the industry and train people in how to use the technology. Hollis said the SVEDF has been working with the Mesa Economic Development Project and the University of Arizona for educational components as part of the overall Four Pillars project.

“The ideal university would help to incubate start-up robotic and unmanned systems ventures in testing, business development research and support efforts in the engineering and product development sectors,” Hollis said.

Announcement of the testing and training project represents a continuation of efforts that the SVEDF began as part of a statwide bid to win designation as an FAA testing site.

Hollis was named president of the Arizona Test Range Complex UAS Industry Consortium by the Arizona Commerce Authority in 2010, serving as a contact for the Southeast region.

“All-in-all, it was an impressive effort on everyone’s part. We had some very talented individuals working to secure Arizona as a test site,” Hollis said.

On Dec. 30, 2013, the FAA announced its selection of the six nationwide test sites for developing a plan to integrate UAS into United States airspace and Arizona was not among the locations.

“Honestly, we weren’t worried. We already had a backup plan in place and not being part of the FAA’s selection wasn’t going to hinder it in any way,” Hollis said. “We were ready to move forward with our own test site.”