Cal UAS: how we got here, and why

The Open House at Inyokern Airport (see related story, this page) will serve to showcase the recent efforts of local and regional partners to promote the local asset as a center for development of unmanned systems — an industry many have identified as the scene of the next technological explosion.

While designating the Cal UAS Portal as an FAA test site has obvious benefits to the local, regional and state economies, the effort began as a solution to a national problem.

Hampered by a lack of comprehensive regulation for operating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in national airspace, industry lobbied Congress to create guidelines that would allow incorporation of unmanned operations in the same airspace as manned systems.

In December 2011 Congress responded by directing the FAA to define criteria and select six sites for the research, development, test and evaluation required to craft these policies and procedures for integration.

Despite the most common association of military applications, the effort in fact relates to commercial applications such as surveillance, precision agriculture, search and rescue and more.

Upon the release of that legislation, the China Lake Alliance searched for a facility in the aerospace corridor — the heart of aviation development, and home to one of the highest concentrations of intellectual capital in military, industrial and educational entities — to find a likely candidate for this solution.

CLA found one in its own backyard — Inyokern Airport. In addition to IYK’s proximity to existing and potential partners in this endeavor, it sits under the largest contiguous restricted airspace in the country — the most critical component for success in developing UAS regulation. The remote location also offers enough infrastructure to support industry, as well as adequate space to provide room for future expansion. Climatic and geographic diversity for testing under virtually every condition cinches IYK as the frontrunner among candidates across the United States.

While other candidates nationwide are being protested by the public over misconceptions about safety and privacy, Cal UAS is also unique among other candidates in garnering almost unilateral support from local stakeholders, who view the local site as the most probable avenue for achieving economic independence in a rural community dominated by federal employment. County partners recognize the tremendous advantage of hosting a site that will lead to technological advancement in agriculture — one of Kern’s most important industries. State leaders see potential for new job creation in this burgeoning industry as a crucial element to helping California recover from one of the longest economic slumps in history.

Some 20 months into the process, FAA has since released requirements, accepted applications and even pared the initial pool of 50 candidates down to about 25. Inyokern is still in the running, fueled by the merits of its application despite the lack of high-profile political and financial backing of competing endeavors. Those merits are only underscored by the dozens of members of companies who have toured IYK and decided that’s where they want to set up operations. Some have not even waited for the official designation.

Cal UAS officials meanwhile have expanded partnerships to create a nexus for refining existing technology and making future discoveries that are potentially as innumerable as the applications this young industry is expected to yield.

Story First Published: 2013-11-06