Washington could become the new home for drone testingon February 25, 2013 @ 4:58 am (Updated: 8:30 am - 2/25/13 )
But, state officials say there is too much money to be made to give up on the technology entirely. The Governor's Office of Aerospace is heading an effort that could make our state a proving ground for the unmanned aerial vehicles or UVAs.
In February of 2012, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to find a way to incorporate UAVs into public air space. The FAA was given a 2015 deadline to designate six testing sites across the country.
Just this month, the FAA has finally notified the states they are ready to start receiving applications.
"We know that this is a growing industry. If there are only six sites across the country, we think the places that receive the FAA designation are going to be magnets for economic activity," says Alex Pietsch, Director of the Governor's Office of Aerospace.
Pietsch is leading a consortium of public and private groups that hope the federal designation of "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site" will be made for an air range in Washington state.
The entities involved include the University of Washington, Washington State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
There is no federal money attached to this designation. Funding will have to come later. After an air range is approved in Washington, Pietsch says they plan to create an LLC or non-profit group that would seek private partners willing to put up some cash.
The consortium has already decided the best site for the drone testing facility would be Grant County International Airport in Eastern Washington. It's a former Air Force Base, has a working FAA control tower, and is highly underutilized. In addition, the airport is centrally located and offers a wide variety of landscapes nearby.
Pietsch says they plan to ask the FAA to designate Grays Harbor, west of Olympia, as a satellite region for blue-water testing. There is also a possibility of other satellite zones in the future. Each of them would require separate FAA approval.
"So, the hub of the activity would be Moses Lake, but we think there would be other satellite opportunities in other parts of the state," says Pietsch.
While they work toward creating an aviation plan and a business plan, Pietsch says they will keep citizens' privacy in mind. He says a huge portion of the procurement documents from the FAA revolve around what plans are being made at the site to maintain civil liberties.
Despite concerns, Pietsch believes the test site designation is not only important for the hundreds, and possibly thousands, of jobs it could bring to Washington, but also for supporting our existing aerospace industry.
Washington has over 1,250 aerospace related companies. Many of them, including Boeing, are already working in the UAV market.
"But there are not test ranges for them to test their vehicles," says Pietsch. "We talked to a company that has a presence in Issaquah, but their parent company bought an air field in Tel Aviv and they have to fly their crews over there to do their testing."
According to Pietsch, Washington has a good chance at being chosen by the FAA to host a UAV proving ground, but the competition will be tough.
"I think every state in the nation is going to be interested in this. It's a significant development economic play," Pietsch says.
The FAA has set a May 6 application deadline for any state hoping to get the "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site" designation.
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