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States skirmish for drone test sites

FAA to tap six proving grounds

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Lockheed Martin Vice President for Ship and Aviation Systems Dan Schultz (left) shows a mini unmanned aerial vehicle, the Quad Vertical Take Off and Landing System, to Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention in Las Vegas on Wednesday. (Martin S. Fuentes/Special to The Washington Times)

LAS VEGAS — As drone technology begins its boom, states across the nation are jockeying for their piece of the pie.

By the end of the year, the Federal Aviation Administration will select six unmanned aerial vehicle test sites to determine how drones — available for personal and commercial use by September 2015 — handle varying weather, altitude and other conditions.

At least 26 states, including Virginia and Maryland, have expressed interest in hosting one of the locations, expected to generate millions of dollars in economic activity and guarantee the states a hand in the next great technological revolution.

Dozens of government officials were on hand this week for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) convention in Las Vegas, pitching their states as the best home for the FAA’s highly coveted testing grounds.

“Entrepreneurs that are developing new technology in this field will find us a very good fit,” Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, told The Washington Times just before getting a look at the cutting-edge unmanned systems on display.

“We’re a very welcoming environment … . We have a big aerospace industry in Utah that’s expanding. It dovetails into what we’re already doing,” he said.

Other states are making similar arguments. Earlier this week, Indiana and Ohio released a proposal to run a joint drone-testing site, taking advantage of military, technological and other facilities in both states.

“We’re optimistic that our combined assets make this bi-state partnership very competitive,” said Matthew J. Konkler, executive director of Indiana’s National Center for Complex Operations.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have expressed support for a similar agreement, in which the FAA and drone companies would have access to resources in both states.

North Dakota, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Florida and more than a dozen other states are also interested, each arguing they can best provide what’s needed for the years of testing required.

“We have a good amount of space in our state, and in addition to that, we have two major research universities,” said Dave Waige, Oklahoma’s director of aerospace and defense economic development. “For 100 years, we’ve been an aerospace state. Now we’re moving into high-tech, unmanned technology, and we think that we have all the pieces in place” for selection as an FAA test site.

The FAA’s latest reauthorization bill, signed into law by President Obama in February, requires the FAA to develop a plan for safely integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the nation’s crowded airspace in time for the 2015 deadline. Selecting the test sites is a key step in the process, which culminates with final rules governing drones — such as how high they can fly, how big they can be and other details — to be released in August 2014.

The FAA and defense reauthorization acts provide no funding for the six locations, meaning states must foot the initial bill. The upfront costs are expected to be offset by the resulting economic benefits, since hundreds or perhaps thousands of government and industry personnel will set up shop in the state.

But interested parties must also contend with residents who may feel uncomfortable with drones, worried that the technology poses new risks to personal privacy. Mr. Herbert said he understands those concerns but thinks his state will recognize the ultimate benefits of unmanned systems.

“As we transition from war-time use to peace-time use [of drones] and do what we can to take advantage of these technologies, it begins to crop in: Will we lose some privacy?” he said. “There may be some trade-off there. But that’s why we’ll develop policies to safeguard against somebody abusing this technology.”

About the Author

Ben Wolfgang

Ben Wolfgang covers the White House for The Washington Times.

Before joining the Times in March 2011, Ben spent four years as a political reporter at the Republican-Herald in Pottsville, Pa.

He can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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