The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday designated six projects across the US for research into drones, the unmanned aircraft that have the potential to alter everything from package delivery to surveillance.
The government agency conducted a 10-month review before naming the sites -- the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in New York, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University's Corpus Christi campus, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Each will be open to various parties who want to test the aircraft, subject to constraints involving safety, privacy, and civil rights.
Drones, also called unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are a hot item right now. Amazon plans to deliver packages with autonomous octocopters, but the move has raised privacy concerns. Drones are now a major part of US military operations, too, initially boosting surveillance operations and then also launching weapons. And among gadget fans, small quadcopters have become a popular toy or hardware-hacking project.
Drone fans applauded the FAA's move.
"Today's announcement by the FAA is an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft," said Michael Toscano, chief executive of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, UAS can save time, save money, and, most importantly, save lives."
The American Civil Liberties Union sought to extend privacy rules for the test program to whatever real-world drone programs might follow.
"We're pleased the FAA has acknowledged the importance of safeguarding privacy in the testing areas where drones will be flying, but requiring test sites to have privacy policies is no guarantee that every site will put strong protections in place," ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump said in a statement. "Someday drones will be commonplace in US skies and, before that happens, it's imperative that Congress enact strong, nationwide privacy rules."
The six projects are as follows:
- The University of Alaska project will open up test ranges in seven climatic zones, including Hawaii and Oregon, and is designed to develop standards for categorizing and monitoring unmanned aircraft. The project also intends to work on navigation and safety issues.
- The Nevada project will focus on drone standards, operations, operator certification, and air traffic control procedures. That will include work in NextGen technology that seeks to replace today's radar-based air traffic control system with one based on GPS data.
- Griffiss International Airport in New York will investigate FAA oversight matters including sense-and-avoid technology to lower risks of drone collisions. It's also examining problems stemming from the addition of unmanned aircraft systems into the congested airspace of the northeast United States.
- The North Dakota Department of Commerce will investigate drone airworthiness and communication link reliability.
- Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi plans to develop safety requirements for unmanned aerial vehicles and to develop procedures for airworthiness testing.
- Virginia Tech plans to test what can cause drones to fail and to evaluate technical risks. It'll have test sites in Virginia and New Jersey.