By Jack Barnwell
After more than 10 months since it released a call for proposals, the nation’s top air safety watchdog released the identities of six test sites that will help usher in integration of drones into civilian airspace.
Cal UAS Portal at Inyokern Airport was not on the list.
Federal Aviation Administration Director Michael Huerta made the much-anticipated announcement on Monday in a teleconference.
“Moving forward, we recognize the expand use of unmanned aircraft presents great opportunities, but it’s also true that it presents significant challenge,” Huerta said. “There are operational issues that need to be addressed, such as ensuring that unmanned aircraft can detect and avoid other aircraft and that they operate safely if they lose link to their pilots.”
He added, however, that it will be a major push forward in technological innovation for aerospace.
The six test sites, from a field of 25 applicants in 24 states are:
• University of Alaska
• The State of Nevada
• New York’s Griffiss International Airport
• North Dakota Department of Commerce
• Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi
• Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
(Full summary of sites here:http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=15575)
Eileen Shibley, in a Cal UAS Portal media release, said that while Inyokern is not on the list, it will continue on its mission.
“Our reasons for putting CalUAS into existence were good then and they are good now,” Shibley said. “We still have the best airspace, the best geographic and climatic diversity and ground infrastructure in place to host this work today.”
Shibley noted that business will continue to be a driving factor for Inyokern and Cal UAS in its mission.
“We are a group of technologists and entrepreneurs and we will remain on course with a goal of ushering in a new era of unmanned systems technologies for commercial applications,” Shibley said. “We are starting with agriculture but are already branching out. We have four tenants at Inyokern, and we have others who have indicated an interest in setting up operations.”
Among those tenants is Parisse Aviations, whose owner Jeff Parisse has been tapped as the Cal UAS agriculture arm’s director.
“IYK will still become a center of commercial development,” Parisse said in the media release. “I truly believe the California spirit of self-reliance and our undeniable aerospace history gives us the ability to run this race with unmatched agility and speed.”
Nathan Ahle, Ridgecrest’s Chamber of Commerce CEO, said that while it was disappointing, it did not exclude Inyokern from continuing on its flight path.
“We still believe Inyokern is the best place in the country for this type of work, and we’re confident that unmanned systems work will continue to come to the Valley even without this FAA designation,” Ahle said.
Cal UAS Portal has built up its team over two years, including what it decries as a world-class safety officials, technical experts and business entrepreneurs that have helped lead the charge.
Unlike other states and applicants that applied however, California remains isolated “as the only state whose governor did not endow financial support or endorsement.”
“I want to stress that this was a robust competition,” Huerta said in the teleconference. “It was a very good field to choose from.”
Business potential still abundant
But supporters, including elected leaders, contend that Inyokern is still the place to do business.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a strong advocate for CalUAS and Inyokern Airport, as well as a driving force behind the UAS integration, saw the bigger picture in the FAA’s decision.
“I still believe that CalUAS is the best place in the country for this kind of work. You cannot replicate our geography, climate and intellectual capital any place in the world,” McCarthy said in a statement. “In the last year, four UAV companies have chosen to move their operations to Inyokern Airport and I believe that this trend will continue in 2014.”
He added that Kern County as a whole will continue to contribute a key role.
“Kern County has played a key role in the advancement of aerospace technology for decades,” McCarthy said. “We believe that will continue in the future, and will stand ready to help usher in the new age of unmanned aviation.”
Kern County First District Supervisor Mick Gleason, a retired Navy pilot and commanding officer of NAWS China Lake, said Inyokern would sell itself.
“The goal is not the FAA site designation, the goal is to bring businesses to Inyokern Airport,” Gleason said Monday by phone. “We just need to keep the drumbeat going so that we can achieve some more success.”
The goal is to make that seen to the wider world, Gleason added.
“It is a irrefutable fact that Inyokern Airport brings to the table the capability that are unique for UAV development,” Gleason. “It’s sold, we just got to get the right people to see it.”
California Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a supporter from Cal UAS Portal’s start, said she did not see the FAA’s decision as a deterrent.
“I know that Inyokern Airport will play a role in the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles because we have already executed that feat at our local military bases, including China Lake,” Grove said in a statement Monday.
Grove said that the decision to introduce unmanned vehicles into civilian airspace has been pushed by industry leaders from the beginning.
“Key industry players have already indicated that Inyokern is where they want to test,” Grove said. “And I believe that the environment we offer— the natural and intellectual resources and the largest restricted airspace in the country — will bring people here regardless of the FAA designation.”
State Sen. Jean Fuller (R— Bakersfield) said in a statement Monday that she was disappointed by the FAA’s decision to exclude Inyokern Airport and California as a whole.
“Our state, in particular the High Desert community, has a long history of fostering and developing new technologies in aerospace,” Fuller said. “As one of the fastest growing areas of the aerospace industry, unmanned aircraft manufacturing could bring thousands of new, high paying jobs to our area.”
However, she stressed during a phone call that there are plenty of positive things to take away.
“I think the expertise and the energy that we gained from the joint application brought us to a new level of competency,”
Fuller said by phone on Monday. “Now that that momentum is started, I think it will continue to go forward.”
Fuller added that because of the application and attention Cal UAS has received “people will recognize that we are away of a head of we thought we were when we first began.”
Fuller, like Grove, has been a strong supporter of Inyokern.
“I’ve seen the team grow tremendously with Eileen Shibley, and I think people will look at this with new expectations and admirations,” Fuller said. “Once something take roots, it can flower and continue to grow.”
Fuller said the only disappointing thing was that California was not selected despite “a long history of being successful — particularly in the China Lake area —in innovation and research testing in aerospace.”
While a setback, Fuller doubted that Inyokern can be ignored and that industry will continue to look at it, and that she will continue to support it.
“Entrepreneurial efforts like what Inyokern is embarking on are always characterized by the best, fastest-moving minds, not necessarily by government support,” Fuller said. Inyokern’s Cal UAS Day open house event on Nov. 16 is proof of that, Fuller added.
“It shows the world what we have to offer as it was a huge success and I believe that jumping from that wonderful example to the next challenge is something I’ll eagerly be awaiting,” Fuller said.
The six test sites will serve as the first step in integrating unmanned systems in the National Air Space by the end of 2015. They represent six public agencies linked to academia or conference.
They were all selected based on a broad variety, Huerta said.
California, a perceived favorite by many industry leaders, offered up decades of groundbreaking developments in aviation and aerospace. Cal UAS’s area of operations “includes Kern, San Diego and Imperial Counties, and its leaders noted it met all criteria necessary for the test site selection.
Shibley, Cal UAS Portal’s director, remained optimistic in the media release.
“I do want to take this opportunity to congratulate the sites that were selected,” said Shibley. “The application process itself was tremendously informative in terms of how we need to plan our next steps.”
In the meantime, Inyokern will continue on its own trajectory and find new opportunities.
“We are going to do this the old fashioned way,” Shibley said. Those of us who have a vision of a future state where unmanned systems are ubiquitous are going to be a part of that future.”
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