Wyoming not chosen as federal drone testing site

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Wyoming will not be the launch pad for America’s fledgling commercial drone industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday named six states as drone testing sites. The Cowboy State, which had proposed a testing facility at Camp Guernsey, failed to make the cut.

The testing sites are a step toward the development of commercial drones, which currently are prohibited for civilian purposes. The FAA is expected to release guidelines opening their use to governments, businesses and researchers in 2015.

The announcement came as a blow to Wyoming policymakers, who hoped a proposed testing site would bring an infusion of high-tech, well-paying jobs to this energy-dependent state.

“I’m always disappointed when these types of opportunities don’t pick Wyoming,” said Bob Jensen, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council, which submitted the application along with the state military department and the town of Guernsey. "This was a unique opportunity with Guernsey, which has assets that a lot of states don’t have."

Camp Guernsey is home to a robotics company, Applied Research Associates, whose four employees at the base focus on the development and application of unmanned ground devices.

Policymakers hoped the company’s presence, combined with Wyoming's varied terrain, would make the state an attractive site for testing drones.

Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, providing diverse climates, geography and air traffic environments as the FAA seeks to safely introduce commercial drones into U.S. airspace.

Wyoming officials said they expect a briefing from the FAA within the next 10 days explaining why the state was not chosen.

Members of Congress and other politicians lobbied intensely to bring the work to their states. Representatives were jubilant about the likelihood that the testing will draw companies interested in cashing in on the industry.

An industry-commissioned study has predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens drone restrictions on U.S. skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.

"This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy," said U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada. In New York, Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, called the announcement a boon for his state.

Drones have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the market. Many universities are starting or expanding curriculum involving drones.

Wyoming is not giving up on the unmanned devices, however. Jensen said two companies have been in contact with the business council about expanding to Guernsey. He said he could not name the firms at this time.

He noted that even if drones are not developed in the state, their use could be highly beneficial to Wyoming industry. Agricultural operations and the energy industry are frequently mentioned as potential drone buyers. They also could be used for fire detection and search and rescue, Jensen said.

“The sky’s the limit, so to speak,” he said. “The industry continues to develop and emerge. My guess is more opportunities will emerge.”

State military officials said they will continue to work with the business council and the town of Guernsey, assessing the potential for the expansion of the drone industry as opportunities arise. The industry could help diversify the state economy by adding high-tech jobs, they said.

“It’s a good place for our college graduates to stay in Wyoming and do that kind of work,” said Col. Richard Knowlton, Camp Guernsey's camp commander.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.