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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Unmanned test site winners pledge cooperation

    18 June 2014, 2:10 p.m.

    by Ben Iannotta, Aerospace America editor-in-chief,

    UASTestSitesPanelJust six months after engaging in a fierce national competition to be named one of the nation’s official unmanned aircraft test sites, representatives of the six winning organizations gathered on stage Tuesday to strike a note of research cooperation in the drive to open the national airspace to unmanned planes.


    “In our independence and in our uniqueness there is strength, because we don’t overlap that much,” said Thomas Wilczek, an aerospace and defense industry specialist in the Nevada governor’s office, which runs one of the sites.


    Luis Cifuentes of Texas A & M University at Corpus Christi, Texas, said geographic variety would be important going forward: “There are many things that we can provide in Texas, but we cannot provide certain weather conditions that are up in Alaska and North Dakota, and vice versa,” he said.


    On December 30, FAA announced the selection of groups in Alaska, the Mid-Atlantic states, Nevada, New York, North Dakota and Texas to run unmanned aircraft test sites and associated ranges. The groups expect to host aircraft developers anxious to test sense-and-avoid, navigation and other technologies that unmanned planes will need to fly regularly alongside traditionally piloted planes.


    The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the agency to select the sites as a step toward opening the airspace. The sites weren’t FAA’s idea, but the agency has embraced the initiative, sending program manager Elizabeth Soltys to participate on the panel. Soltys displayed a map of the sites and ranges. Alaska’s Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, for example, includes airspace in Hawaii and Oregon.


    “By looking at this picture, you see that we met the mandate of the law,” Soltys said. “The mandate required us to have geographic diversity, climate diversity, and not just climate diversity within the team of Alaska, but diversity across the portfolio that was selected. Research diversity, as well as meeting ground infrastructure needs.”


    The panel moderator, Rich Christiansen, vice president of Sierra Lobo, Inc., praised the speed at which the competition was held and the awardees selected.


    “Within 10 months, they went through that process, and I’ll tell you, having been involved now with many procurement activities through the government, 10 months is sweet. It would be nice to get that done in a lot of other activities,” he said.


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