Aug. 28, 2014

Taking another step toward ultimately integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the nation’s airspace, the FAA recently announced the start of operations at its sixth and final UAS test site at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The FAA granted seven certificates of waiver or authorization (COA) for Virginia Tech to conduct tests utilizing several small and micro-sized aerial observation and filming platforms, including the Smart Road Flyer, eSPAARO and Sig Rascal. The COAs will be in effect for two years.

The Virginia school joins five other organizations in the test UAS program. They are:

  • University of Alaska
  • State of Nevada
  • New York’s Griffiss International Airport (RME)
  • North Dakota Department of Commerce
  • Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi

“We have undertaken the challenge of safely integrating a new and exciting technology into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the Aug. 13 opening of the test facility in Blacksburg, VA. “The six test sites are going to play a key role in helping us meet that challenge.”

NBAA personnel have been heavily involved in the process of assisting the FAA to address the technological and certification requirements for safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system (NAS).

Bob Lamond, NBAA’s director of air traffic services and infrastructure, participates in the FAA’s UAS aviation rulemaking committee (ARC), while Sarah Wolf, NBAA’s senior manager for security and facilitation, is a member of an ARC working group that is focused on UAS pilot certification requirements under FAR Part 61.

“The information yielded from these test locations will be instrumental in fully, safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the NAS, and ensuring that their operation does not interfere with business aircraft flights or other aviation operations,” said Wolf.

“At NBAA, safety is always our top priority, so it is therefore imperative that any introduction plan for UAS be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety,” said NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen when the FAA announced the six UAS testing sites earlier this year. “This means UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft unless they meet the same certification and airworthiness standards as manned aircraft, including the ability to take timely directions from air traffic control, and to sense and avoid other aircraft and UAS. Additionally, we oppose any steps taken in introducing the aircraft that would reduce or restrict access for business aviation to airspace or airports.”

Each of the FAA test site locations is researching different aspects of UAS operations, with the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems at Virginia Tech charged with failure-mode testing and evaluation of UAS operational and technical risks.

Under the auspices of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Virginia Tech will lead the testing conducted at sites located in Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland.