FAA delays site selection

Proponents of local UAS test site await congressional response

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

After months of waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to comply with a congressional directive to safely integrate unmanned aerial systems into federal airspace, FAA acting administrator Michael Huerta announced that the agency has put any action on indefinite suspension.

The agency is months overdue in establishing the requirements for selecting six test sites that will provide the research and development toward outlining how UAS will be integrated. The FAA points to privacy concerns as the impediment to moving forward with that step.

But those involved in the highly competitive process— including a locally focused effort for a Cal UAS Portal — believe that the FAA is looking for an excuse not to comply with a directive that carries no accompanying funding and deals with components outside the agency’s realm of experience.

Congress outlined requirements for the test sites in two pieces of legislation passed last December — the FAA Modernization and Re-form Act and the National Defense Authorization Act.

FAA was mandated to establish a program no more than 180 days after enactment, define site requirements in July, and choose those sites by December. Though the FAA states that it established a program in March, the requirements for test sites were never released.

In an Aug. 1 letter to Huerta signed by members of the House of Representatives, including Buck McKeon (R-Antelope Valley) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the representatives acknowledged a “growing concern over the FAA’s ability to meet its projected December deadline” and offered “legislative support to you and your staff in your integration efforts.”

Huerta’s response, released earlier this month, states, “As you know, the FAA’s primary mission is, and will continue to be, safety.” He went on to state that the agency’s latest charge must be “thoughtfully planned and carefully managed.

“Our target was to have six test sites by the end of 2012. However, increasing the use of UAS in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated.”

The drive for integration appears to have come from private UAV industry, whose operations are hampered by lack of comprehensive regulation for unmanned systems. The congressional directive to the FAA was apparently in response to this need. The legislation also compels the agency to work with NASA and Department of Defense — which, during their 60-year reign over unmanned RDT&E, have achieved integration of UAVs within military influence areas.

In order to leverage that existing knowledge, test sites are expected to crop up around military installations — which was part of the logic in proposing such a site within the vast restricted airspace that encompasses China Lake, Edwards and Ft. Irwin.

Although proponents of the local effort have expressed frustration at the additional delay, officials are remaining tight-lipped in anticipation of the congressional response to the FAA’s letter.

McCarthy stated that he expected to have a more detailed response by the end of the week, but at press time said “I am disappointed with the recent response from the FAA, and will continue to work with my colleagues in the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus so the FAA moves ahead in a timely manner with its process of selecting FAA test sites.”

Story First Published: 2012-11-28