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Drones In Commercial Airspace To Drive A New Industrial Revolution
FAA selection of six UAV test sites creates anticipation over local jobs and the growth of U.S. manufacturing
By Casey Nobile


“Make jobs, not drones”—it’s a slogan that has appeared on Occupy signs across the country. But what if drones created jobs? The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, enacted on February 14, requires the FAA to select six states as test sites for research that will soon allow UAVs—commonly referred to as drones—to operate alongside commercial aircraft in the national airspace (NAS).

“UAVs are in many ways going to be for our decade what the space program was in the ‘60s,”John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA

The public tends to react negatively to the term “drone” because of its association with secretive defense projects, unauthorized surveillance and targeted attacks overseas, but states who have experienced significant job loss in recent years—Ohio lost more than 369,000 jobs in the manufacturing industry over the last decade—could benefit from the number of jobs created by a local UAV manufacturing infrastructure.

So far, about 40 states are expected to apply for the test site status that should attract a thriving community of researchers, manufacturers, suppliers and educators to invest in their local economies.

One national study estimates the unmanned aircraft industry will create 23,000 jobs over the next 15 years and the number of defense contracts attracted by an UAV cluster would mean accelerated opportunities for growth.

Taking back manufacturing

Currently, there is no aviation authority in the world that allows drones 24-hour access to its country’s friendly airspace. It seems the U.S. could be the first, with legislation pushing for fewer restrictions on drone operation and integration of civil unmanned aircraft into the NAS by “no later than September, 30, 2015.”

Early integration and the opening of a commercial market for drones should ramp up the establishment of a UAV manufacturing infrastructure in the U.S. that will stand out among its global competitors.

UAV expenditures are expected to reach over $84 billion in the next ten years, with U.S. manufacturers poised to supply foreign markets as restrictions on drone exportation gradually lift and more commercial applications being discovered every day.

U.S.-based marketing firm Teal Group predicts that the U.S. will account for 62 percent of the worldwide RDT&E spending on UAV technology over the next decade, and 55 percent of procurements.

Despite public concern over privacy, the technology is not going away. Countries around the globe are already engaged in an arms race centered on drones. Domestically, the FAA has signed off on about 300 certificates of authorization for government agencies, universities and private companies to operate drones in the U.S. already and projects that 30,000 drones, from “insect” models to those the size of commercial aircraft, will be operating in U.S. airspace by 2020. 

“UAVs are in many ways going to be for our decade what the space program was in the ‘60s,” John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA, told NPR.

Test site selection

According to the FAA, the six test site programs should aim to fulfill the following research requirements, however, research strategies may well vary from site to site:

  • Safely designate airspace for integrated manned and unmanned flight operations in the NAS
  • Develop certification standards and air traffic requirements for unmanned flight operations
  • Address both civil and unmanned aircraft systems
  • Ensure that the program incorporates NextGen (GPS-based) broadcasting devices
  • Ensure the safety of unmanned systems and their related navigation procedures
  • Between March and May of this year, the FAA collected public input on how best to designate the six test sites. The agency has been reviewing that data as they create the criteria to be considered throughout the proposal submission process.

    The FAA’s invitation to submit proposals is scheduled to go public within the next month, with NASA and the Department of Defense acting as consulting bodies throughout the selection process. According to the agency, elections will be made in late 2012 and the first site should be operational by 2013.

    Specific standards for the sites have yet to be established, but each state’s five-year contract will involve authorization (not funding) for flight research, development and data analysis.

    Despite the lack of official Defense and FAA funding for the sites, there is plenty of incentive for private companies and public institutions to aggressively lobby for the FAA designation. The aerospace industry (largely due to government purchases of UAVs) continued to experience growth while traditional juggernauts such as the U.S. automotive industry struggled with sales. Fittingly, AUVSI, the industry’s trade organization, doubled its own lobbying budget this year.

    Little is known about what it might take to win test-site status except that the FAA will be looking for “geographic and climatic diversity” and “the location of ground infrastructure and research needs.”

    Who’s in the running

    There are 64 drone bases in the U.S. currently, with several concentrated in California, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and New York. Some bases are utilized for drone pilot training; others serve as remote cockpits for robotic aircraft overseas or drone data analysis depots. These states are likely candidates for test site designation, with coastlines and varied geographies in addition to established relationships with NASA and the DoD.

    Prior to even the FAA’s invitation for jurisdictions to apply, state legislators have gathered resources and launched committees in an effort to earn one of the FAA’s proverbial golden tickets.

    Ohio has launched the Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative, aimed at developing an “enduring friendship” with the FAA and UAV community. The Dayton Development Coalition, a regional business group, spent $60,000 to tout the site’s proximity to research labs at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The base experienced an industrial jump-start last year when the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a major intelligence, military, aerospace, engineering and systems contractor, moved a total of 215 jobs to the area from Virginia.

    Ohio’s defunct Wilmington Air Park is similarly eager to embrace the UAV technology. NPR visited the property, which hosts a mere 150 flights a year since Airbus supplier, DHL, and the 9,000 people it employed, left town. With the Air Force already testing aircraft at Wright-Patterson, the all but abandoned 1900-acre air park is primed for hosting more UAV test flights.

    In New York, NUAIR is the newly formed not-for-profit that Centerstate CEO has assembled to lobby for test-site selection. The full name stands for Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Regional Alliance, and the team includes familiar local players in the radar and electronic sensing fields — Saab Sensis, SRC, Anaren and Lockheed Martin. It also includes Calspan Corporation in Buffalo, and about a dozen colleges and universities, including the University of Buffalo, RIT, Syracuse University, SUNY colleges of Morrisville, Oswego and Binghamton, Cayuga, Onondaga and Jefferson community colleges, as well as Dowling College, on Long Island, which has a school of aviation.

    Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota says his state is also doing everything it can to have the city of Grand Forks and its air force base selected as a pilot site. “The pilot sites represent a huge opportunity for the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the university and the high-tech businesses that have been clustering in the area to support UAV operations,” he says.


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    About the author

    Casey Nobile is the lead editor for Robotics Business Review’s RBR50 news, editorial and business segment. She is also contributing writer and editor for the publication’s News & Technology columns with special emphasis on breaking news coverage for science, technology and financial transactions. Casey is also editor and contributor for other in-house publications: Robotics Trends; RoboBusiness and RoboBusiness exhibit services.

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