IYK moves ahead full throttle on UAVs

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

IYK moves ahead full throttle on UAVsInyokern Airport regulars have by now become accustomed to the steady increase in activity at the previously quiet high-desert facility. However, one of the newest efforts about to kick into high gear is not sitting on the runways or hovering in our airspace, but found the form of an army of volunteers and a handful of staff taking on IYK’s most ambitions endeavor yet — an effort to be named as one of the FAA’s six test sites to integrate unmanned aerial systems into federal airspace.

After more than a year of painstaking progress in building momentum for the local movement, the Cal UAS Portal team has leaped two major milestones in just one week — first by officially filing an intent to submit a proposal, and second by being formally accepted by the FAA as a qualified applicant.

In December 2011 Congress directed the FAA to undertake the effort and outlined a schedule that would release the program requirements by July 2012 and choose sites by last December. When the requirements were released just last week, the local effort — a partnership between IYK and the China Lake Alliance — hit the ground running.

The Cal UAS team has been working for more than a year on solidifying partnerships — as well as military, DOD, political and industry support. But the team has only a few weeks to gather and write the technical components for FAA consideration.

Those who spoke to the News Review gave a unanimous endorsement of the advantages of staging at IYK — which combines autonomy, solid infrastructure and geographic and climatic diversity with precious access to the vast ranges of the largest contiguous swath of protected airspace in the country.

But many have also pointed out that the highly competitive process will see heavy-hitting applicants who bring to bear all the resources of their states of origin and millions in funding to boot.

“Our main effort right now is in breaking down the proposal into specific areas and writing those portions,” said Russ Bates, president of the IWV Airport Board. He said that China Lake Alliance Executive Director Eileen Shibley has been appointed as the lead and is in the process of finalizing teaming agreements.

“We’ve also been working closely with China Lake on this,” he said. “China Lake sees the possibility of a designation at Inyokern as a very positive thing. They see UAVs as an area of growth for China Lake — we have already seen that it is increasing in importance and number of operations all the time.

“But Inyokern is also a relief valve — both in terms of facilities and in terms of airspace — for China Lake. We have a memorandum of agreement with the Navy that is in the final stages of review and will be in place this week.”

Among those serving as technical consultants in the proposal process is newly elected board member Paul Valovich, who manages proposals for DCS Corp.

“The first thing to understand is that we need to organize and execute the writing in a fairly compressed time frame,” Valovich said. “There is an awful lot of data and information that we need to provide, and most of it is due March 28.”

He said the most notable difference between what IYK is undertaking and the normal process for competitive bids is that there is no money involved.

“However, there is a lot of prestige involved in being selected, and that will bring a lot to the table in terms of economic development.”

Valovich and Bates agreed that the proposal posed a great potential to bring work compatible with the China Lake mission to the Indian Wells Valley.

“I’ve spoken to senior management on base, and [Executive Director] Scott O’Neil has a very strategic vision of base capabilities. He knows that UAVs are a big part of that,” said Valovich.

He said his role will be in refining the presentation of the proposal so that it has the best possible impact on the person from the FAA who will be reading it. “You have to think about it the fact that this guy may be reading it at midnight, and it’s the 10th one he’s read that day. He’s tired, maybe he wants to go to bed.

“First and foremost he is reading against a check list to see whether or not you comply with the requirements. You have to figure out a way to make that part easy. Because if you can’t, that’s not going to inspire a lot of confidence in our ability to follow instructions.

“After all those requirements have been met, that’s when you can add all the stuff about how great our location is.”

Valovich also emphasized the fact that the process would move forward regardless of IYK’s involvement. However, he said that having an influence in that process was an advantage.

“You also have to consider that eventually we are all going to be held to these processes and procedures. By writing this proposal, it forces us to be a leader in figuring this out — taking a proactive role rather than a reactive one.”

Others have pointed to privacy and other concerns that have cropped up during the discussion of integrating UAVs. “I recognize that there are people who will not be satisfied unless we froze time at 1956. But the fact of the matter is that the technology already exists, and we have a tremendously involved relationship with China Lake. We are already a part of the future of this. It is in the community’s best interest, and the base’s interest, to be able to move forward on this together.”

The Cal UAS Portal team officially kicks off tomorrow at the office space at IYK. “We have seven volumes and 168 pages of information that we have already started going through. There are about 20 of us working on the responses,” said Shibley.

“Early analysis already indicates that we have a very good chance of getting one of these sites on merit.” In addition to the other advantages listed, she said, IYK could have an advantage being a nontowered airport. “Mark Backes is probably the one who has the best handle on this, and he has pretty much said that from the beginning. A tower is just one more thing you have to coordinate, which can be cumbersome in a research and development environment.”

Shibley said that bringing a test site to the valley would also be a coup for the alliance, whose mission is to bring compatible industry to the valley.

“Our goal all along has been to find ways that positively impact both the base and the community. I think this would absolutely establish that for our community. But more importantly, I think that this is the best possible area for the FAA to consider for this purpose. It’s just a private-sector continuation of what DOD has been doing here for decades.”

Story First Published: 2013-02-27