Drone testing awarded to six states including New York

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government Monday said it has approved drone test centers in six states, including New York, as the start of research efforts to eventually allow civilian unmanned aircraft widespread access to the nation's airways.

The Federal Aviation Administration, after sifting through 25 applicants, also approved bids from Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia, it said in an emailed statement.

"These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

The selection is one of the first U.S. regulatory moves to begin integrating unmanned aircraft with planes and helicopters as companies including push to develop commercial drones.

Sales of civilian and military drones around the world may reach $89 billion during the next 10 years, according to a forecast by the Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based aerospace research company. Drone makers include Northrop Grumman Corp., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and AeroVironment Inc.

Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos told CBS's "60 Minutes" that small copters may be able to drop off packages weighing as much as 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms), speeding delivery of books and other items. Bezos said it may take the FAA four or five years to create rules permitting the devices.

States expected winning bids to draw companies and jobs surrounding the test site, Andrea Bianchi, program manager for a joint proposal by New York and Massachusetts, said in an interview before the announcement.

The test sites will be used to help the FAA develop certification standards for unmanned aircraft and operating them within the air-traffic system, according to the law requiring the sites.

The agency considered factors including location, climate, the type of flights in the area and safety factors, it said in the release. "These six test applications achieve cross-country geographic and climatic diversity and help the FAA meet its UAS research needs," the agency said in the release.

The winners were the University of Alaska, which also has test sites located in Hawaii and Oregon; the state of Nevada; Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y.; the North Dakota Department of Commerce; Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi; and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

"We have successfully brought new technology into the nation's aviation system for more than 50 years, and I have no doubt we will do the same with unmanned aircraft," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in the release.

There will be almost 250,000 civilian and military drones in the United States by 2035, a study this year from the Department of Transportation found. Usage will be sparse at first, growing as technology hurdles are cleared, the study concluded.

Other users aren't waiting for the FAA. The agency fined Swiss citizen Raphael Pirker $10,000 for flying a model airplane at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to make a promotional video in 2011. Pirker is challenging the fine, arguing that FAA has no authority to regulate drones.

In response to concerns that drones could threaten people's privacy, the FAA will require test-site operators to maintain records of devices flying at the facility, create a written plan for how data collected by airborne vehicles will be used and retained, and conduct a yearly privacy review.

Facilities must also adhere to all privacy laws that may apply to drone use, such as restrictions on law enforcement to obtain search warrants, according to the FAA's privacy policy.

The FAA received 25 applicants from 24 states, from Alaska to Florida, according to the agency. The agency hasn't released a list of the applicants.

Earning the FAA endorsement for a test site isn't a guarantee that local economic development will follow, William Miller, a professor emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said in an interview.

Many factors — including local labor laws, proximity to investors and the social and political climate — have to be present before a test facility will spawn another version of California's Silicon Valley, said Miller, who has studied entrepreneurs and the regions in which they've blossomed.

"If there isn't a good set of conditions, the companies don't thrive. They often move elsewhere," he said.


Mildenberg reported from Austin, Texas.