4:50pm

Wed February 20, 2013
The Upstate Economy

Upstate New York bids to become federal drone testing site

A coalition of upstate New York universities and defense contractors has submitted a bid to become a federally designated testing and research site for the integration of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, into domestic airspace.

Last February, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with regulations for the domestic use of UAS, also known as drones, by 2015.

As part of that, the FAA will name six sites around the nation to test out drones and help draft the regulations. On Thursday, the FAA formally solicited bids to designate the sites. They were originally scheduled to be named by the end of last year.

CenterState CEO, an economic booster organization for the region, formed the coalition, known as Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Regional Alliance, or NUAIR, last summer. Partners include Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Syracuse Research Corp. and Saab Sensis. NUAIR has since partnered with similar entities in Massachusetts.

10,000 drones

The FAA estimates there could be as many as 10,000 drones flying in American skies in the next five years. Currently, permission to fly a drone requires a lengthy application process and permits are mostly given to research institutions and some law enforcement agencies.

Drones are expected to be used for everything from search and rescue, to crop dusting, to newsgathering. One of the key issues the FAA will have to work out is the ability of drones to communicate with air traffic controllers, manned aircraft and other drones.

The massive growth of drone use is expected to create an economic boom in the U.S.

Up to $94 billion could be invested in the systems in the next decade, according to a report by the Teal Group, resulting in 23,000 new jobs, which is said to be a conservative estimate.

The hope of NUAIR is that by getting a test site, upstate New York will be at the forefront of the investment and job growth.

"If you have one place, or two places, or three places in the country where all of the testing (is taking place), you would expect the industry to grow around that," says NUAIR Operations Director Robert Knauff, who is a retired Air Force major general.

"We look at the short and medium term benefit as one that will bring an awful lot of industry – small industry, probably, but some larger ones too, to come right here, to central New York, and operate," he says.

NUAIR will compete with about two dozen other regions to get a testing site. Ohio, North Dakota and Florida are some of the other states expected to place a bid.

Knauff says upstate New York brings a strong base of defense contractors, universities and most importantly, airspace, to the table. That airspace is the Army's controlled space over the Adirondacks and Lake Ontario.

Privacy concerns

The last big hurdle that will need to be worked out before drones are integrated into American skies is privacy.

"I think it raises some concerns with people, particularly when you start talking about the potential of drones flying over people's private property," says Catherine Crump, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "On the flip side, I think most people recognize there can be benefits to using drones. So it's a really mixed bag."

Most drones are equipped with cameras, either to help them navigate, or recording what they see.

Along with evaluating the bids from potential test sites, the FAA will solicit public comment on privacy issues for 60 days. Many industry watchers worry the FAA is not equipped to handle privacy concerns.

The review process for the test site bids is expected to last about 80 days. Knauff estimates the sites will be named a few months after that.

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