Local UAS effort -- big milestones passed

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Local UAS effort -- big milestones passedFinalized teaming agreements, completion of significant requirements milestones and a chorus of political support (see related story, this page) are buoying the Califor-nia Unmanned Aerial Systems (CalUAS) Portal team through the competitive process to promote Inyokern Airport and its partners for the FAA site-selection process to help integrate unmanned systems into federal airspace.

“So many good things happened last week — some of those deals we were able to close had been in the works for over a year,” said Eileen Shibley, Cal UAS team lead. “As of last week we have submitted five of the eight requirements volumes. And after collectively catching our breath over the weekend, we are already back at work on the next three.”

The FAA was first directed by Congress in December 2011 to establish test sites by December 2012. Although insiders had speculated that the process would be competitive, site selection has also been delayed by controversy relating to privacy concerns and what many characterize as political maneuverings.

“There has been speculation about what from the very beginning, and the truth is that none of us really have an answers for it,” said Shibley. “What I can say is that we have not only an opportunity here but a responsibility to help define how unmanned systems with commercial applications will be assimilated into U.S. airspace. That is not something we can stop, it’s just something we can choose to participate in or not. I think if we want logical, streamlined processes and procedures for integrating UAVs, our input is very valuable.

“This is what our region has been doing for defense for decades. I think everything about our proposal — from leveraging that historical expertise to providing real-world terrain and weather conditions in the largest restricted airspace in the country — gives the FAA the perfect place to provide the RDT&E to ensure that integration is as safe and expedient as possible.”

After an eight-month delay, the FAA released the requirements on Feb. 18. By Feb. 28 the Cal UAS team had to submit its team members and area of operations (Volume 1 requirements).

Volumes 2 (qualification), 4 (safety), 5 (experience) and 6 (teaming agreements) were submitted March 28.

“Vol. 2 was pretty basic. The FAA required each applicant to be a bona fide public entity. For that we simply had to submit a letter from the state Attorney General’s office,” said Shibley.

“The safety volume is huge — that alone accounts for 40 out of 100 points in the proposal.” She said that although Cal UAS team has been working on a compact time frame to submit the requirements volumes, much of the groundwork had been laid over the last year as regional stakeholders — from industry to defense to community supporters — have come forward and expressed an interest in collaborating.

“We have put together a topnotch team — which I think is another strength for us — and the safety aspect is just one example of that,” said Shibley. She said that Butch Spoons has been named as the safety officer for the IYK team.

“He brings with him decades of experience and a lot of respect from the people who have worked with him over the years. We are setting up a safety review board, and he is helping us establish a safety risk-management program at the airport.”

Vol. 5 relates to what experience collaborating pilots bring in both manned and unmanned crafts. “With the teammembers we have in place, this is another one we have in spades.”

Shibley said that Vol. 6 is just a documentation of the team members named in Vol. 1. “We have some great partners from San Diego and Imperial counties — representing everything from DOD to private industry to local airports — as well as support from Mojave Air and Space Port and Mammoth.”

A last-minute addition to the team is Chip Yates, a young entrepreneur and world record holder who set up operations at IYK and was an early advisor on the proposal process.

“Anyone who’s ever been involved in the proposal process knows that the proposal manager is one of the most critical components. We were so fortunate to find Chip. Not only does he have an incredible breadth of experience, but he has a way of energizing the room,” said Shibley.

“He is also going to oversee the submittal of Vols. 3, 7 and 8.”

Vol. 3, due April 11, deals with the research element, airspace and ground infrastructure. “Again, we are looking good in all those areas. We have fabrication, office and hangar space people could move into tomorrow. We have Digital 395 bringing fiber to the area, a fire station onsite, daily Fed Ex for shipping. The research element was anticipated and has been in the works for months.

“And airspace? This is the jewel in our crown! We are right in the center of the largest contiguous airspace in the country — that is one of the most critical advantages we have.”

Vol. 7, due May 6, will be an analysis of economic impact.

“This is another that is hard to gage. Depending on how this takes off, we might have some big companies open a local office, or job opportunities for locals, or clients regularly flying in and sleeping in our hotels and eating in our restaurants — and quite possibly some combination of all of those,” said Shibley.

“We don’t know the outcome, we only know the potential. And right now we are partnering with whoever we can to turn this incredible opportunity into a reality.”

Vol. 8 will outline privacy considerations, and is due June 11. “The interesting thing here is that those requirements have not even been stated yet. But we all know it’s coming and we’re doing everything we can to be prepared,” said Shibley.

“My history as a China Laker taught me the importance of embracing the technology of the future. You can be progressive, which gives you the chance to participate in the development, or you can react to what is happening without having any chance to affect that change.

“I don’t think we see many chances like this. The economic opportunity is a big part of what is driving 50 efforts in 37 states to get one of these test sites — and it is certainly one of the reasons this opportunity caught our attention. But I also called this a responsibility, because I know that our experience in this realm obligates us to help usher in this new aeronautical age for our state and our country.”

Story First Published: 2013-04-03