April 26, 2013 in Business

Drone test site could come to Washington

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Drone planning

Congress directed the FAA to plan for safe integration of drones into the national air space system by 2015.

Washington is vying to become one of six test sites for unmanned aircraft called drones.

A proposal by a dozen Washington groups calls for the test site to be headquartered at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake.

Groups taking part in the proposal include Innovate Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Steve Stein, a technology project manager at PNNL and the drone project’s coordinator, said Washington has a strong chance of being selected by the Federal Aviation Administration as one of six test sites nationwide. The FAA has said it will choose sites by the end of the year.

Foreseeing an increase in the development and use of unmanned aircraft, Congress directed the FAA to come up with guidelines by 2015 to ensure drone flights don’t interfere with private, commercial and military flights.

The FAA has also said it’s pursuing a separate process to ensure drone flights don’t violate privacy laws.

While the FAA has no money in its budget for creating the sites, Washington officials say they would find a way to operate the test hub so that it covers its costs.

If Washington gets one of the first sites, for-profit companies wanting to test new applications or test early versions of drones would pay to use the Moses Lake base, said Alex Pietsch, who heads Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office of Aerospace.

One rough guess suggests the state’s cost to operate a test site would be around $500,000 per year, said Stein.

“We have no intention for this to make money for the state,” Stein said. The goal is to establish a fee system that would require private companies to cover the costs of their tests, he said.

The coalition behind the state’s proposal believes getting a site here would make Washington a long-term hub for future drone technology development.

“There are as many applications for unmanned aircraft as you can think of,” Stein said. He compared the drone airframe to a smartphone, with the onboard tools and services similar to phone apps.

Washington state’s open spaces and coastline are ideal, he added, to test drones for firefighting, precision agriculture, wildlife tracking, border patrol, search and rescue, energy consumption analysis across a metro area, snowpack and avalanche monitoring and other uses.

Washington’s Department of Transportation is looking at testing drones to study and track traffic patterns in parts of the state, Stein said.

Because drones can be flown remotely, they are safer and less expensive to operate than aircraft or helicopters. Many such unmanned vehicles include high-definition or infrared cameras to collect visual data about terrain they fly over.

The long-term benefit of having a certified test site would be attracting private-sector companies eager to establish an office to test their drones, Stein added.

Moses Lake was chosen because of its central location, the size of its airport and its history as a test site for aircraft, and because the FAA has a control tower there.

That FAA tower there is not targeted for closure from scheduled federal budget cuts, Stein said.

So far, about 50 applications from more than 30 states have been submitted to host the sites. Idaho originally planned to share a submission with Alaska but seems to have discarded that plan, Stein said.

Oregon appears interested in working with Alaska and Hawaii on a joint application, he said.

The FAA intends to select the six sites by Dec. 31, with the requirement that the operations must start within six months. The expectation is for the test hubs to operate for five years, Stein said.

Another factor that might favor Washington is its remote mountain ranges, Stein added. The Washington proposal suggests using a test location for drones flying among mountains above 18,000 feet.

The lead partner for Washington’s proposal is Innovate Washington, the state agency that merged Spokane’s former Sirti business incubator organization with the Washington Technology Center.

Other agencies involved in the application are the ports of Moses Lake and Grays Harbor, the Washington Army National Guard, Everett Community College’s Center for Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing, the state Department of Commerce and economic development groups for Klickitat and Grays Harbor counties.

If Moses Lake is chosen, PNNL will be the base operator, Stein said.

The FAA said the six sites will also have to operate under a set of privacy guidelines that safeguard citizens from possible surveillance or inadvertent intrusions.

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