Each test site will be responsible for testing drones in a different context. Nevada, for instance, will do much of the research on unmanned vehicles’ impact on air traffic control. North Dakota will test the data links between drones and their controllers. New York will test the sense-and-avoid technologies crucial for keeping drones away from people and other aircraft.
Virginia Tech, which will work with Rutgers University in New Jersey, is set to examine what happens when drones fail.
Each site will have special airspace designated to test unmanned aircraft. Beyond the technical specialties, the sites were chosen for being geographically and climatically different from one another, FAA administrator Michael Huerta told reporters Monday.
“What we have is the platform to conduct broad-based research considering a wide variety of factors,” Huerta said in a conference call. “We’ll see where this research takes us.”
The process of integrating drones into the U.S. airspace is expected to take years and to take into account privacy and safety concerns. The FAA has acknowledged that it will take longer than Congress had hoped when it set a September 2015 deadline for granting drones general access to the skies.
The FAA chose the sites out of 25 proposals from teams in 24 states. States have 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 such as Utah and Mississippi made the case that they had the educational facilities to turn out new engineers and pilots.
State officials hope the drone industry will one day bring billions in economic development as the number of manufacturers grows in coming years.
“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.”
Virginia Tech’s research on drone failure will largely take place in a lab environment, said Jon Greene, the associate director of the university’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. Identifying what could lead to a crash or systems malfunction — and programming around those things — will be a key part of mitigating the potential dangers posed by unmanned aircraft. Until engineers are satisfied with the results of their computer models, no actual drones will be flown.
“The goal will be to use our test flight to verify what we’ve already proved to ourselves in an extensive testing process on the ground,” Greene said. “If we can quantify the risk and rewards, we can make informed decisions about what risks are worth taking.”
The University of Maryland may also become one of Virginia Tech’s project partners, Greene said.