States await FAA decision on drones, and the billions that could follow

December 19, 2013

An unmanned aerial vehicle flies at the unmanned aircraft flight station at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., on Dec. 12, 2013. (Jamey Jacob/Oklahoma State University via AP)

Economic development offices and major research universities across the nation are waiting with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas Eve for the Federal Aviation Administration to decide where it will station research and test sites for drones. The FAA’s decision, which could be worth billions of dollars in economic activity and tens of thousands of new jobs, will hand some states a Christmas bonus, and leave others with a lump of coal during the holidays.

The decision will be the culmination of the FAA’s nearly year-long search for six sites to research and test drones — more formally known as unmanned aircraft systems — after Congress directed the agency to come up with a plan to integrate them into the nation’s airspace.

The FAA put out a request for proposal back in February, in search of a site that included proprietary airspace and access to the agency’s Next Generation Air Transportation System. The administration is looking for a site that would allow them to develop certification standards for both civil and public unmanned systems, according to a March news release.

Laura Brown, an administration spokeswoman, said they hope to make the decision by the end of the year. States that have bid for the program can hardly contain themselves.

“This is a really big deal,” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), whose state is one of 24 applying for a testing site, said in an interview. “It could mean billions of dollars in new investment, thousands of technical jobs for our state. It [would] make us an anchor tenant in a new and growing industry.”

Already, the economic impact of unmanned aircraft systems is projected to boom in the coming years. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, estimated this year [pdf] that the industry would account for more than $13.6 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2017, and for more than 70,000 jobs. The group projects drone research, development and manufacturing will be worth more than $1 billion in California, Washington and Texas, and worth more than $500 million in Arizona, Connecticut and Florida.

Of those six states, only Connecticut has not applied to become an FAA testing ground. Two different groups in California — one in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, the other in Kern County, surrounding Bakersfield — have submitted their own bids.


Twenty-five groups in 24 states have applied with the FAA to host drone testing sites. (FAA)

Several states are combining bids in hopes of presenting a stronger case to the FAA. Virginia and New Jersey are working together, while Maryland is submitting its own bid; major research universities in all three states, including Virginia Tech, Rutgers and the University of Maryland, have signed a memorandum of understanding to work as a unit if either team wins a site, said Karen Jackson, Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Technology.

Each state that has submitted a bid, whether through a major research university, an international airport or an economic development board, is presenting itself as the best possible choice for the FAA; in more than a dozen interviews with state agencies submitting bids, the word “unique” was common.

“Utah is uniquely positioned to support the FAA’s efforts,” said Marshall Wright, director of Aerospace and Defense in Utah’s Office of Economic Development. Oklahoma is “a unique place in the U.S. that offers restricted airspace for UAS testing,” according to a background document the state sent to the FAA.

Utah has offered four possible UAS testing sites, including at small rural airfields in Delta and Milford, along the Green River and at a site called Promontory, north of the Great Salt Lake. Mississippi’s site would be headquartered at Camp Shelby, where the state’s National Guard has been testing Predator drones for years, said James Poss, a retired Air Force major general who now directs strategic initiatives at the High Performance Computing Collaboratory at Mississippi State University.

Washington State would house its drones at Grant County International Airport, near Moses Lake in the high desert east of the Cascade Mountains, which served as an alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle, according to Alex Pietsch, director of the state’s Office of Aerospace. The University of North Dakota has 120 aircraft to its name, which would allow testers to simulate flying drones in busy airspace, said Robert Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority.

States are pitching themselves to the FAA in differing ways. Some, like North Dakota, Utah and Nevada, highlight their wide-open spaces; Nevada, much of which is owned by the federal government and the U.S. military, has more restricted airspace than the other 49 states combined, Sandoval said. Others, like Washington, California and Mississippi, are highlighting their access to maritime airspace.

Poss, the retired Air Force major general, also said his state and neighboring Louisiana, which did not submit a bid, have a friendly environment: They are two of only seven states that do not have anti-drone legislation pending before their state legislatures.

As drones begin to play a bigger role in everything from law enforcement to disaster response to agricultural observation, whichever sites the FAA chooses for a bid, many economic development directors said, will be receiving a big economic boost long into the future.

“The industry, we believe, is going to continue to grow and grow and grow,” said Manning McPhillips, chief administrative officer at the Mississippi Development Authority.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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