In a major step forward for domestic drones, the federal government began Thursday to solicit proposals for six sites where the craft will be put through a battery of tests in preparation for their eventual integration into U.S. airspace.
The six locations, which have generated interest from more than 30 states, including Maryland and Virginia, will become the primary testing grounds for unmanned aerial systems, scheduled to enter U.S. airspace en masse in September 2015.
"We expect to learn how unmanned aircraft systems operate in different environments and how they will impact air traffic operations," said Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta. "The test sites will inform the agency as we develop standards for certifying unmanned aircraft and determine necessary air traffic requirements."
The sites also will be used to address safety concerns, such as what happens if a drone has an equipment failure or operator error, according to FAA officials.
Despite Thursday's progress, the agency is behind schedule. The FAA had given itself a Dec. 31, 2012, deadline to name the six sites but it is delayed due to "privacy issues." It's unclear when the six winners will be chosen.
Many lawmakers and others share the FAA's concerns and demand that the privacy implications of drones be studied and addressed.
But the agency has no authority to write laws or regulations to govern drones and whether the devices may, for example, legally peek into someone's bedroom window. That responsibility falls to Congress and state legislatures.
At least 11 states, including Virginia, and a growing number of local governments also are pursuing drone legislation, with privacy infringements cited as the main motivation in each case.
"Individuals are rightfully concerned that these new eyes in the sky may threaten their privacy. It is the obligation of Congress to ensure that this does not happen," said Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican and co-author of the latest drone-privacy bill in Congress. "Just because Big Brother can look into someone's backyard doesn't mean it should. Technology may change, but the Constitution does not."
Beyond the privacy concerns, the FAA also faces the monumental task of safely allowing drones, which get smaller and faster by the day, into already crowded American skies. Speaking to the drone industry's largest trade group this week, FAA official Jim Williams called it a "revolutionary step" for aviation but also the "greatest challenge" the industry has faced in decades. Mr. Williams heads the agency's unmanned aerial systems integration office.
Federal officials believe the test site program will provide the needed data to ensure that, by September 2015, the FAA will be ready.
"Our focus is on maintaining and improving the safety and efficiency of the world's largest aviation system," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department oversees the FAA, said in a statement Thursday. "This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology."
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