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FAA will identify six ranges to test integration of unmanned aircraft into national airspace

Based on a recently-enacted Congressional mandate, the Federal Aviation Administration has begun a process to designate six separate test ranges throughout the United States where unmanned aircraft can be flown experimentally, with an eye toward eventually integrating such unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System.

The FAA has invited the public to submit comments by May 8 on its plan to identify half a dozen test ranges. Members of the public can submit such comments by visiting www.regulations.gov and citing docket number FAA-2012-0252.

“This feedback will be utilized to help develop UAS test site requirements, designation standards, and oversight activity,” explains an FAA notice posted in the Federal Register on March 9.

The use of unmanned aircraft is “growing dramatically” in the United States, observes the FAA. “They currently range in size from wingspans of six inches to over 240 feet; and can weigh from approximately four ounces to over 32,000 pounds,” the notice continues. “In the United States alone, approximately 50 companies, universities, and government organizations are developing and producing some 155 unmanned aircraft designs.”

The most-recent Congressional mandate occurred on February 14 when President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which requires the FAA Administrator to integrate UAS into the national airspace at six test ranges.

Under Section 331 ( c ) of H.R. 658, the FAA Administrator was directed to ( 1 ) safely designate airspace where unmanned systems could be flown, ( 2 ) develop certification standards, ( 3 ) use the resources of NASA and DoD, ( 4 ) address both civil and public aircraft, ( 5 ) coordinate the program with the “Next Generation Air Transportation System,” and ( 6 ) verify the safety of unmanned systems and navigation procedures.

In identifying the location of the six test ranges, the FAA Administrator is also expected to consider “geographic and climatic diversity,” investigate the availability of ground infrastructure and research needs and consult with NASA and DoD.

The FAA is open to considering a wide variety of potential locations for the test ranges submitted by government agencies, private institutions and organizations. “DoD and NASA have indicated that, while their organizations are not requesting to create additional restricted airspace for UAS testing, they are willing to assist the FAA with this initiative,” says the notice.

The effort to open up the national airspace to unmanned aircraft will deal with a wide range of aircraft.

“These devices may be as simple as a light, hand launched aircraft flown within line of sight of the operator or as complex as a high altitude surveillance aircraft patrolling our nation’s borders,” says the FAA’s notice. “They may be flown using a data link to transmit commands to the aircraft. They may perform a variety of public services, including: Surveillance, collection of air samples to determine levels of pollution, or rescue and recovery missions in crisis situations.”

The FAA is planning to host a series of “national webinars” to provide further information regarding its program to identify the six test sites.

Further information about the FAA’s invitation for public comment is available from Richard Prosek, manager of the unmanned aircraft program office at the FAA, at 202-385-4835 or uastestsites@faa.gov