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On Monday, December 30, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the operators of the six sites around the country where research and testing required to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace will be conducted. One of the six winners is the state of Nevada, and one of their proposed test sites is causing concern among Las Vegas air tour operators.

The six research and test facilities are part of a Congressional mandate to the FAA to integrate manned and unmanned aircraft operations into the national airspace by 2015. According to Huerta, the sites were chosen for their geographic, climatic, and airspace diversity. Nevada has both desert and mountain terrains, and a wide range of airspace, including military special use airspace and congested and heavily populated airspace in and around Las Vegas.

The FAA has directed the Nevada facilities to focus their efforts on UAS standards and operations, operator standards and certification requirements, and also to include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will need to evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment, as well as how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen.

At an October meeting of HAI’s Helicopter Tour Operators Committee, representatives from several air tour operators from the Las Vegas area expressed concerns about the facilities’ impact on air tour operations over Las Vegas itself and the routes to the Grand Canyon. While the exact locations of the testing areas are yet to be finalized between Nevada and the FAA, air tour operators remain concerned about possible restricted access to airspace or, if the airspace is not restricted, potential conflicts between unmanned and passenger-carrying aircraft.

On a conference call with media to announce the six sites, Huerta reiterated that the FAA’s primary concern is safety. And he said that operational details of the various test facilities are yet to be worked out.
The other five research and test site operators are the University of Alaska, Griffiss International Airport (formerly Griffiss AFB) in central New York, the North Dakota Dept. of Commerce, Texas A&M University’s Corpus Christi campus, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), which, through a memorandum of understanding with Rutgers University, will have range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey.

According to the FAA news release, the areas of focus for the six facilities are -

  • University of Alaska: Development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation, and safety standards for UAS operations. The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon.
  • State of Nevada: UAS standards and operations, operator standards and certification requirements, how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment and how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen.
  • New York’s Griffiss International Airport: Development of test and evaluation processes, verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight, sense-and-avoid capabilities for UAS, and researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested, northeast airspace.
  • North Dakota Department of Commerce: Development of UAS airworthiness essential data and validation of high reliability link technology. ND DoC will also conduct human factors research.
  • Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi: Development of system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing.
  • Virginia Tech: UAS failure mode testing, and identification and evaluation of operational and technical risks areas.
Posted in: Regulatory News
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