WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration will authorize test sites for drone aircraft in nine states, but not Washington state, the agency said Monday.
But integrating the aircraft into the nation’s airspace, set by Congress for 2015, will be phased in gradually.
The agency picked six institutions to operate test locations, which will explore how to set safety standards, how to train and certify their ground-based pilots, how to ensure that the aircraft will operate safely even if they lose their radio links with the ground and, most of all, how to replace the traditional method for avoiding collisions.
Already, federal investigators have linked one drone craft to a problem that would have been almost inconceivable if a pilot had been on board: The engine failed, and no one noticed.
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While the public is mostly aware of drones like Predators, Global Hawks and other high-altitude, long-range planes operated by the government, Monday’s announcement covers commercial and private aircraft that come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
These include electric helicopters that a landlord could use to inspect a rooftop water tower; midget helicopters that a utility-line worker starts by yanking a cord like the one on a chain saw, which can fly close to power lines; and Styrofoam planes that run on lighter fluid and can fly over fields to look for agricultural pests. Police and fire departments are among those eager to operate drones.
Competition to host the test sites was fierce, with state economic-development agencies predicting that a major industry was developing.
The winners, chosen from a field of 25, included Griffiss International Airport, a former Air Force base near Rome, N.Y., and Virginia Tech, which will fly in Virginia and has an agreement with Rutgers University in New Jersey for testing there as well.
Virginia Tech plans to conduct “failure mode” testing, meaning what happens if the aircraft’s control link is lost.
The others were the University of Alaska, which plans to test in Hawaii and Oregon as well as Alaska, the state of Nevada, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, and Texas A&M University Corpus Christi.
The unsuccessful bid from Washington state said that testing would be based at the Moses Lake airport, which has a long runway and a history of aircraft testing for Boeing.
The project would have been managed by the Richland-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Michael Huerta, the administrator of the FAA, said the sites that were selected provided a diversity of geography, climate and air traffic density. Huerta said the choice of the six institutions is a major milestone for the aircraft, whose proponents prefer to call them “unmanned aerial systems.”
But he said that while a 2012 law sets 2015 as the date by which they would be integrated into an airspace shared with conventional airplanes, “we would envision that that would be a staged process, as we learn more about what these aircraft are, and how they interact with other aircraft.”
The phase-in could be by type of drone, or by type of airspace, or some other factor. The research will continue until 2017, the FAA said.
Flights are supposed to begin within six months. The FAA did not give the exact locations where the tests would be carried out.
The basic concept is that everything in the sky, manned or not, will use the Global Positioning System to determine its location in three dimensions, and will radio that information to the ground, where a computer will develop an integrated picture and send that to all pilots.
Sophisticated drones could use that data without human intervention to sense conflicts with other aircraft.
Huerta said that his agency had already issued the first commercial license for drone use; in Alaska it gave ConocoPhillips, the oil company, permission to use a ScanEagle off the Alaska coast. The United States uses the ScanEagle as a spy plane; Iran claims to have captured one and copied its design.
The FAA has put several privacy requirements in place for the test program.
Test-site operators will be required to publish privacy policies, covering how they will use the data they gather and how long they will retain it, among other steps.
Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.