UAV effort gains momentum

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

UAV effort gains momentumA formalized leadership team and an enthusiastic response from stakeholders are fueling the local effort to have Inyokern Airport designated as a research and development site for the integration of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) into federal airspace.

This momentum is building despite the Federal Aviation Administration’s delay in releasing the request for proposals, which will officially launch the competitive selection process.

Development of unmanned systems was a $3-billion industry last year alone — a 12-percent growth since 2010. As more and more of those applications are driven by private industry, the need for standardized regulation has become more pressing. (Right now the only way to access federal airspace is the acquisition of a single-craft waiver from the FAA.)

Congress responded to the need by passing legislation last December that directs the FAA to name six test sites to conduct RDT&E toward UAS integration and outlines a 12-month timeline for the completion of the process. The FAA then released a timeline that pledged to release requirements in July, and make final selections by December.

What was originally anticipated as a short-term delay by the FAA is now rumored to drag on for months.

The IYK Board of Directors has taken the lead in the effort by naming a committee to work with a consulting firm to draft a proposal.

“We have already had a great meeting with our consultants,” said IWV Airport Board President Mark Backes. “We can only make an educated guess at what the requirements will be, but we want to have as many components in place as possible when the FAA releases their requirements. Obviously, we anticipate making adjustments when that happens.”

Drawing on her experience as a former UAV program manager and successful lobbyist, Weapons Division retiree and China Lake Alliance Boardmember Eileen Shibley is chairing the committee and leading the charge in the effort.

Members of the committee also include Backes and fellow IYK Boardmember Russ Bates and Inyokern Airport CEO Scott Seymour.

China Lake liaisons include Matt Boggs, Dylan Riley and Mike Biddlingmeier, who bring to the table their experience in range operations, technology transfer and business development.

Shibley said that the congressional directive compels military and NASA entities to serve as advisors on the selection process, which prohibits China Lake from advocating for any one solution. However, the China Lakers on the committee ensure that the IYK effort does not pose a conflict to the Navy mission.

As the spokesperson, Shibley has outlined the committee’s efforts for groups such as the Kern County Board of Supervisors, IWV Economic Development Corporation and, yesterday, the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce.

“I think this is a great opportunity for some positive economic development for our community,” said Matt Anderson of the EDC. “We could take advantage of some of the resources we have an abundance of — clear flying weather, an airport with three runways and room for growth.

“I think this would be a good thing for the community.”

Jon McQuiston, 1st distirct supervisor, is among the political leaders who have expressed enthusiasm for the effort, though none have yet gone on record with that support.

“I think that caution is warranted, since we are all still waiting to hear what the requirements are,” said Mick Gleason, executive director of the alliance.

“But we have a great committee, and they picked the right person to lead us down the road of discovery. Eileen has done a great job of promoting this, and she received a vote of confidence from the CLA board when she gave them a briefing.”

While the political landscape, and even the very role of politics, remain uncertain, proponents of the effort say that if the process is technically driven, IYK is a natural fit for the needs of UAS research and development.

In her presentation to the chamber, Shibley showed a map of the air traffic patterns in the United States. Although airspace is relatively saturated everywhere else, the Inyokern sits at the center of the restricted airspace that covers China Lake and other California military institutions.

Because of its central location, diverse terrain and climate and low population density, IYK has been proposed as the hub of a complex that stretches across the central valley and incorporates desert, mountain and maritime environments.

Shibley noted that IYK already has hanger and office space to spare, an onsite fire station and a rapid prototyping facility. Future logistical support includes the planned development of three new hangers and the arrival of high-speed cable with Digital 395.

“When we first heard about the congressional directive to the FAA, we sat down and objectively evaluated whether Inyokern or one of our other local airports would be a good fit,” said Shibley.

“If you look at the anticipated needs, Inyokern is just a perfect fit.”

One of the most important assets of a location solution would be the ability to leverage the existing culture of RDT&E innovation and success at China Lake, she said.

“No one really knows at this point what being designated as a test site would bring to this community. We think there are a lot of benefits — an infusion of private commerce and technology transfer, for example.

“But what we have here is an opportunity. Decades ago someone else saw that same opportunity at the Inyokern airstrip, and 70 years later we have what has come to be internationally recognized as a center of excellence at China Lake.

“Inyokern could become the location of similar renown for unmanned systems.”

Story First Published: 2012-08-14