Shibley reports ’groundswell of interest’ in UAVs

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

“If I had to reduce my experience down to a sound byte, I think the biggest thing I learned from this conference is that there is a groundswell of interest across the country in unmanned systems, technology and putting the U.S. back in the game,” said Cal UAS Portal Team Lead Eileen Shibley, who returned last week after being a speaker and panelist at the Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference in New York City.

Shibley has been leading an effort for the last 18 months to promote Inyokern Airport (and regional partners) as a candidate for one of six sites the FAA is anticipated to select in order to allow industry to perform the research and development necessary to develop guidelines for integrating UAVs into national airspace.

FAA officials have pared down the list of candidates from 50 to about 25 — with Cal UAS still in the running. But in the interim, many commercial developers are fleeing the country in search of space to advance their technology.

“We are not in the unmanned systems game because our skies are not opened up. But there is a world of people out there who are ready to go,” said Shibley.

“People are frustrated about that — there is an energy and a motivation to change things and you could feel it in the room.”

Shibley has been cited in industry periodicals for rallying stakeholders to push for resolution in order to pave the way for advancement in the industry.“This conference had attracted the most eclectic group of attendees I have ever seen.

“Usually you have your technical people — suppliers, manufacturers and the like. Of course there were all those people there, but also government officials, attorneys, insurance agents, ACLU, hobbyists,” she said.

“And most of these people are waiting for integration, which is the only thing that will get us to the next step. And while we wait, all the money, technology and intellectual capital associated with development is going overseas. So I asked this room full of people, is that OK?

“The answer I got back was a resounding no. So then we have to decide, what are we going to do about it? How can we approach this differently so that we can get better results?”

Shibley said at least part of that answer is to keep consistent pressure on Congress (which issued the FAA directive to begin with), but part of it is to increase collaborative efforts among stakeholders and raise awareness among the public.

“There are still so many people who have these misconceptions that what we are dealing with here are military drones or spying drones, but this is impacting commercial applications for everything from precision agriculture to search and rescue to the filming industry,” she said.

Shibley said that in addition to having the perfect location — under restricted airspace and within a region whose legacy is in aerospace development — one of the benefits of bringing UAV development to Inyokern and the High Desert is a more shrewd awareness of the technology. “Being next to China Lake, the residents of our community live with cutting-edge technological development. We are not afraid of it — we embrace it. That is not the case in many parts of our country.”

She said her talk was very well received at the conference. “There are a lot of people who approached me, handed me their cards and said, ‘Just tell me what I can do to help.’”

Shibley said that she is still waiting for the FAA’s site designation — expected to be announced in December. One industry expert at the conference said that even once sites are selected and rules are defined, at least 2-3 years will go by before implementation.

“I am very respectful of the bureaucracy, and I believe we need to work through the system, but I also know that people in industry are going to have to position themselves so that when the system finally responds, we can react immediately. Because I can tell you right now — we are already behind.”

Story First Published: 2013-10-23