FAA selects drone test locations

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday named the six test sites for drone research following a 10-month selection process that included 25 proposals from 24 different locations across the country.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday named the six test sites for drone research following a 10-month selection process that included 25 proposals from 24 different locations across the country.

Sites in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will officially host the research sites, but many of those six partnered with other state governments or academic institutions to bolster the diversity of their proposal.

“These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

In selecting the six test site operators, FAA considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk to give FAA a wide range of factors to meet its research needs for unmanned aircraft systems.


Each test site operator will manage the test site in a way that will give access to parties interested in using the site. FAA’s role is to ensure each operator sets up a safe testing environment and to provide oversight that guarantees each site operates under strict safety standards.

FAA provided a quick snapshot of each proposal that was accepted:

  • University of Alaska. The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon. The research plan includes the development of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation. Alaska also plans to work on safety standards for UAS operations.
  • State of Nevada. Nevada’s project objectives concentrate on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. The applicant’s research will also include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment and how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen. Nevada’s selection contributes to geographic and climatic diversity.
  • New York’s Griffiss International Airport. Griffiss International plans to work on developing test and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight. The applicant also plans to focus its research on sense and avoid capabilities for UAS and its sites will aid in researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested, northeast airspace.
  • North Dakota Department of Commerce. North Dakota plans to develop UAS airworthiness essential data and validate high-reliability link technology. This applicant will also conduct human factors research. North Dakota’s application was the only one to offer a test range in the Temperate (continental) climate zone and included a variety of different airspace that will benefit multiple users.
  • Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. Texas A&M plans to develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing. The selection of Texas A&M contributes to geographic and climactic diversity.
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Virginia Tech plans to conduct UAS failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas. This proposal includes test site range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey.

The site selections were met with excitement from those selected as the designations are expected to bring a financial windfall for the host states as some economic forecasts show there could be thousands of jobs for UAS direct employees with an average wage of approximately $62,000; an estimated $2.5 billion in economic impact nationwide; and an estimated $125 million in annual state and local tax revenue.

“This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy,” said Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. “Nevada has long been a leader in the UAS industry, and no state makes a better candidate than ours. With this application approval, Nevada will continue to lead in new and innovative technologies of the 21st century, along with creating a large and profitable industry.”


FAA has until 2015 to develop regulations aimed at limiting the privacy and safety concerns associated with unmanned aircraft. Congress called for the establishment of six national unmanned aircraft system research and testing sites through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

While much of the testing to date has been conducted under defense programs, continued work on the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace will be implemented through a combination of federal, state and local government resources, along with academic institutions and private industry.

A number of the proposals focused on diversity as neighboring states partnered together to enhance their attractiveness to FAA.

For example, Virginia partnered with New Jersey to create the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. The University of Maryland, College Park, was the lead agency in the Maryland application for an FAA test site, bringing together a similar consortium of groups and test ranges.

After submitting the applications, the three universities agreed to work as a united team to enhance the region’s competitive position in the event FAA selected either or both proposals.


“With our partners, we firmly believe we can introduce this new technology the right way,” said Jon Greene, interim director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and an associate director of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technologies and Applied Science. “Separately, the team members have flown unmanned aircraft systems for thousands of hours, and now we have joined together to conduct unmanned aircraft systems research, development, and test and evaluation activities.”

The same was the case in Alaska where the state partnered with Oregon and Hawaii to provide up to seven different dramatically different climate zones in which to test.

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