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After ten months of evaluation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has selected six test sites to research the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the U.S. with the goal of developing regulations, guidelines and licensing around permissible usage of UAS in U.S. airspace. The six sites were selected from a total of 25 applicant proposals from 24 states.

Under existing FAA law, commercial usage of UAS is restricted in the U.S. In order to use civilian drones for non-commercial purposes — such as search and rescue and ecological study — entities are required to obtain a certificate of authorization based on a rather unpredictable case-by-case analysis.

Michael Huerta, administrator of the FAA, told reporters that the FAA will work to get all six facilities up and running as soon as possible, with at least one facility operational within six months. Test sites will continue to operate until at least February 13, 2017.

“With these sites, what we have is the platform to conduct broad based research considering a wide variety of different factors, and we’ll see where the research takes us as we introduce these into the national airspace system,” Huerta told reporters.

“Safety continues to be our first priority as we move forward with integrating unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace,” said Huerta.

The Big Six test sites are as follows:

  1. University of Alaska: Will focus on developing safety standards for UAS operational
  2. State of Nevada: Will include a look at how air-traffic-control procedures will evolve
  3. New York’s Griffiss International Airport: Will work on developing sense and avoid capabilities
  4. North Dakota Department of Commerce: Will pursue air worthiness essential data and validate high reliability link technology along with human factors researching
  5. Texas A&M University — Corpus Christi: Will recommend system safety requirements
  6. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech): Will examine failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational technical risk areas

According to a statement published on their website, “the FAA is confident that the agency’s research goals of System Safety & Data Gathering, Aircraft Certification, Command & Control Link Issues, Control Station Layout & Certification, Ground & Airborne Sense & Avoid, and Environmental Impacts will be met.”

Recognizing public concerns around privacy protections, the FAA stated: “From the start, the FAA recognized it was important to have requirements ensuring that privacy and civil liberties are protected at the test sites. Among other requirements, test site operators must comply with federal, state, and other laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy … and conduct an annual review of privacy practices that allows for public comment.”

This announcement represents a critical step toward building a government-sanctioned commercial market around UAS technology. While this hasn’t completely impeded entrepreneurs from operating UAS under existing guidelines as alleged hobbyists, the current restrictions have hampered wide-scale adoption across industries.

Among the many markets where UAS are currently being considered or employed in this country and around the world are agriculture, real estate/construction, nature conservancy and ecological study.

A report published by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has suggested that more than 70,000 jobs could be created in the five years following FAA approval of commercial drones. Now it looks like that FAA approval is at last on the near horizon.

Sally French/3D Robotics