All six of the UAS test sites have been up and running for a while now. So, what coordinated research are they doing to assist the integration of UASs into the National Airspace? According to a recent report , very little. Bob Becklund, the director of the North Dakota test site, recently complained that the FAA hasn’t given them any guidance on what types of research they should be doing or what data should be collected. As a result, the North Dakota test site has been left trying to figure out what information they should send to the FAA. In fact, Mr. Becklund raised concerns that the FAA may have already abandoned the test sites as a focal point of UAS development. “If the FAA [gives Section 333 exemptions to businesses], then what good are the test sites?”
The FAA’s failure to coordinate the activities of the test sites should not come as a surprise. The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General warned that this would happen back in June. The Report noted that the FAA’s official position was that “the Agency cannot direct the research activities of the six test sites and specify outcomes because there is no Federal funding.” In order to correct this, the Inspector General recommended that the FAA:
Determine the specific types of data and information needed from each of the six planned test ranges to facilitate safe integration of UAS into the NAS.
The FAA responded to this suggestion, stating that:
The FAA will determine what data should be collected and request results of studies and relevant data from the test sites. This will be an ongoing activity as test sites develop. The FAA anticipates completion no earlier than 2017 and will provide the results by December 31, 2017. (emphasis added).
The Inspector General thought that this response missed the mark, and noted that the “recommendation was specifically aimed at encouraging FAA to determine the data it needs early in the process so it can more effectively use the test sites to identify and reduce UAS integration risks.” Based on the frustrated statements of Mr. Becklund, that recommendation has not yet been acted on.
In the interim, the FAA has proposed the creation of a UAS Center for Excellence (COE) that “will be tasked with identifying current and future issues critical to safe integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace.” Unlike the test sites, the “FAA intends to support this COE over the next 10 years with minimum funding of $500,000 per year. The universities will be required to match federal grants, dollar for dollar, from nonfederal sources.”
If readers are confused about how this new entity will interact with the test sites, they are not alone. The FAA stated in a recent press release that”[e]xactly how the new COE will interact with six UAS test sites that the FAA selected last December will be determined once the COE team is in place and develops its detailed research plans.”
The UAS test sites were a good idea when Congress proposed them back in 2012. It would be a shame to see this asset squandered due to a lack of focus and coordination. Hopefully Congress will take a closer look at the test site funding and coordination issues when it takes up the Department of Transportation’s budget request later this fall.
(Originally October 3, 2014)