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The 6 lucky states that’ll shape the future of drone technology

(Photo by Don McCullough.)

For months, drone watchers have waited for the Federal Aviation Administration to decide who'll conduct the nation's safety testing on unmanned planes. Now, two days before the deadline, the FAA has named six winners from the original 25 applicants. They are: the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in upstate New York, North Dakota's commerce department, Texas A&M University and Virginia Tech.

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 is to examine what happens when drones fail. Beyond the technical specialties, the test sites were each chosen for being geographically and climatically different from the others, FAA administrator Michael Huerta told reporters Monday.

"What we have is the platform to conduct broad-based research considering a wide variety of factors," said Huerta in a conference call. "We'll see where this research takes us."

The six winning states, along with the 18 other states that submitted applications. (Brian Fung / FAA)

In addition to working with aerospace contractors and the government, the test sites will be open to anyone who strikes an agreement with them, Huerta added. That could even include consumer-oriented companies like Amazon, which has proposed using drones to deliver light packages to its customers. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Monday's announcement gets us one step closer to integrating drones into the country's airspace, a complicated process that's expected to take years. The test sites will be operational until at least February 2017, when Congress will have to revisit the FAA's budget authorization. By then, the agency will have already begun approving drones for widespread commercial use. But newer drone technologies will always need to be tested.

To address privacy concerns over the data being gathered by the drones, every test site is required by the FAA to develop a privacy policy that'll be made publicly available. They'll also have to tell people how they'll use and keep the data.

Although the FAA's announcement technically addresses six states, the actual number is closer to nine. That's because two of the universities on the list intend to operate test ranges elsewhere, too. The University of Alaska will also conduct testing in Hawaii and Oregon. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, has a partnership with Rutgers University in New Jersey. Like the other sites, these will have special bits of airspace carved out just for testing unmanned aircraft. But Hawaii, Oregon and New Jersey chose not to submit their own applications.

The agency's list of test site operators is here.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.



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Brian Fung · December 30, 2013

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