FAA picks six states for drone testing

December 30, 2013

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

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday said it had selected sites in six states to test unmanned aircraft systems, a decision that could bring billions in economic development as the number of drone manufacturers grows in coming years.

The FAA selected teams based in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia. Several teams included other states in their bids, meaning drone testing will also take place in Hawaii, Oregon and New Jersey.

“This is a really big deal,” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said in an interview earlier this month, before his state officially won its bid. “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.”

The FAA chose the six teams in order to test drones in a range of terrains and scenarios. A proposal submitted by the University of Alaska will test drones in seven climatic zones, from rough arctic conditions to sunny Hawaii. Nevada’s site will test drone integration into the FAA’s NextGen air traffic control system.

New York’s testing site will be based at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, near the busy Northeastern air traffic corridor. At Griffiss, drone operators will test the “sense and avoid” capabilities of unmanned vehicles.

Texas A&M University and Virginia Tech will contribute climatic diversity to drone testing sites, the FAA said. Virginia Tech’s bid will include the University of Maryland and testing sites in New Jersey. Meanwhile, the North Dakota Department of Commerce will test unmanned vehicles in temperate continental climates, and local officials said they hope to expand the reach of drones into agricultural uses.

“Agriculture is predicted to be the breakout market for these things in the United States,” said Robert Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority.

The FAA chose the sites out of 25 proposals from teams in 24 states. States courted drone manufacturers, offering tax and research and development incentives to companies in search of locations for new facilities. North Dakota offered to match investments in drone research, while states like Utah and Mississippi made the case that they had the educational facilities to turn out new engineers and pilots.

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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Reid Wilson · December 30, 2013