UAV site proposal completed, sent

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

UAV site proposal completed, sentAs the final volume of the intensive application process for considering UAV test-site candidates now sits in the hands of the FAA, members of the Cal UAS Portal team close the chapter on the frantic proposal period and reflect on how the endeavor became a focal point of pride for the Indian Wells Valley.

“You would not believe the show of support we have gotten from this amazing community. We are just humbled by the way people have come together for this effort,” said Eileen Shibley, Cal UAS Portal director.

Shibley has been working with China Lake Alliance and Inyokern Airport boards for more than a year — first to explore whether IYK would be a good fit to apply for one of the test sites to integrate UAVs into federal airspace, then to promote IYK as a base for the RDT&E necessary to achieve that goal.

The efforts of the Cal UAS Portal team were exponentially ramped up when the FAA released the requirements document at the end of February, leaving the team only a few short weeks to substantiate experience, safety considerations, logistical support, participants and other details about the proposed site.

During that time elected leaders came forward to voice support for the effort, as did a flood of business owners and other individuals interested in seeing a test site at IYK.

“One of the interesting things about this process is that even though other states have been ahead of the game in fund-raising, I don’t know of any other site that has been embraced by their community like ours has been,” said Shibley. “While other sites were being protested by native populations or having restrictive legislation imposed by their governing bodies, the response here has been almost exactly the opposite.

“At the state level we have a bipartisan group of legislators working together to try and make UAV development easier. At the grassroots level we have had an overwhelming outpouring of support from individuals and small businesses — hundreds and hundreds of letters from people telling the FAA that they want this here.”

Shibley said that she is not surprised, considering the legacy of technical work at China Lake and surrounding areas.

“I think there is a culture here that makes people excited about future-focused technology. We like being the pioneers, the ones who are forging the path that will shape the development of unmanned systems.”

She noted that one reason the application process has been so competitive — more than 50 efforts have been logged from 37 different states, and only six will be chosen — is because of the assumed economic benefits.

Although Cal UAS members have been reluctant to quantify those benefits, those close to the process speculate that UAV developers will move operations to wherever those sites are located. Some have even put a site selection of IYK on the same level of significance as the Navy taking up residence at China Lake — pouring technical jobs and the need for support services into the community.

“There is certainly a lot of opportunity here — that I can’t deny, even if I could not begin to predict exactly what it would be,” said Shibley. “In this economic climate I think the prospect of jobs and industrial growth is exciting — which is part of the reason our site has been embraced by our elected officials.”

But she added that there is also an emotional connection between advancement of aerospace and the people of the high desert.

“In fact in writing the applications we had an opportunity to review all the ways that our region has played a role in the development of this industry. From the research and development labs of China Lake and NASA Dryden to the runways of China Lake, Edwards, Mojave and IYK, we have touched just about every major achievement in flight for the last several decades,” said Shibley.

“Just last week we saw a British billionaire test the first privately funded rocket, putting us one step closer to commercial spaceflight.

“These milestones did not happen here on accident. That kind of work comes here because we have the airspace, the infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly, the technical minds to support it.

“After reviewing our application for consideration, I am more convinced than ever that our region is the absolute best place on earth to pave the way for future development of unmanned systems. And based on the feedback we are getting for the companies who have already indicated their eagerness to come here, I think that may happen no matter what the FAA does.”

Story First Published: 2013-05-08