IYK unveils CalUAS Portal

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

IYK unveils CalUAS Portal“We think this is a huge opportunity for our area, and an equally important opportunity for all of California,” said Eileen Shibley.

As states around the nation are posturing for the highly competitive selection process for FAA test sites to integrate unmanned systems (UAS) into national airspace, the IWV Airport Board committee driving the local effort has unveiled its plan for the CalUAS Portal — which has IYK at the center.

“Inyokern is leading all of California in a plan that incorporates all the resources of our state to provide a solution for UAS integration,” said Shibley, chair of the committee. She and Airport Board President Mark Backes gave an outline of the plan to the China Lake Rotary Club at its Sept. 19 meeting.

She said the China Lake Alliance, of which she is a board member, first heard about the plan for UAS integration last November.

Apparently, the burgeoning growth in commercial applications of unmanned aerial vehicles has driven the industry to push for more standard regulation in operating UAVs in federal airspace. The current process requires specific waiver requests for each unit. Backes likened that to each person buying a car having to ask for specific permission and definitions of driving privileges for a specific vehicle — and then being stuck with whatever he or she initially requested.

Congress responded to this need by passing legislation last December, outlining general requirements and a timeline for the FAA to select sites in July and have them in place by December. (The FAA is already behind on that timeline by several months, but speculation within that circle is that they will not release official site requirements until after November elections.)

Legislation directs FAA to consider geographic and climatic diversity, the infrastructure and research capabilities of each location and mission compatibility with NASA and DOD.

Those close to the process also speculate that the criteria might consider proximity to existing military installations and restricted airspace and a nontowered airport. “When you are conducting research and development operations, these things give you more flexibility,” said Shibley.

She showed a photo of commercial air traffic that shows the largest contiguous patch of airspace in the continental U.S. with IYK at the heart of it.

With that in mind — and with facility’s ability to leverage vast natural and intellectual resources — the IYK team has built a plan that has the local airport in the center and partnering facilities stretching across central California that provide urban and rural centers with desert, mountain and maritime environments.

“ We’re putting together a package that we think will be viable and extremely competitive,” she said. “If this is based on technical merit, we think IYK will be a shoe-in.”

She said there are as many as 50 competing efforts — some of which are already raising millions to promote them and have the political backing of every level of leadership.

“Our effort has briefed every level of government representation, and there has been tremendous support for a UAV site in our region,” she said.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy was among those who signed a letter in August to the FAA, urging the agency to move the selection process forward. He has also spoken in favor of a regional solution during his visits to Ridgecrest.

“You did not hear me say how much money the FAA has designated for this, and that’s because it is zero,” said Shibley. “But what is going to come into play here is that because the needs of the business sector is driving this, they are going to go where it works for them.

“That’s why we are putting so much energy into this. The benefit of having an operation of this kind in our community would be immeasurable.”

The committee has been busy reaching out to stakeholders in industry, politics and military. “Everyone has been positive about this,” she said.

“Inyokern has a lot going on — it’s like a little gem.” A brand-new terminal, newly upgraded runways, regular shipping service, an on-site fire station and an unused rapid prototyping facility are just a few of the infrastructural advantages of IYK as a site.

“And the best part is that they are not running anywhere close to capacity. There is so much potential there.”

Industry is looking for somewhere affordable, open and autonomous. “So many have said to us, ‘If you guys get one of those sites, we’ll be there.’ And some of them are coming anyway.”

One member of the audience asked how the general aviation community felt about this.

Backes, a pilot and flight instructor, responded that IYK will have to live under the rules and regulations that come out of the test process regardless of its participation. “I would rather be on the side that is helping define those rules.”

“I want to footstomp what Mark just said,” Eileen noted. “The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has already come and out said they hate this. But driving the process to make up the rules is always better than following rules someone else got to make up.

“This really is in our best interest.”

Story First Published: 2012-10-03