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Future drone nests

Feds announce test sites for unmanned aircraft

The Reaper drone, now known as a Global Hawk, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies. Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, the agency said. AP Photo

The Reaper drone, now known as a Global Hawk, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies. Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, the agency said. AP Photo

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday six test sites for developing drone technology, including Griffiss International Airport in northern New York, a choice with ramifications for Massachusetts researchers and the airspace over Cape Cod.

Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, providing diverse climates, geography and air traffic environments, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

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 drone programs. The FAA does not currently allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede the project may take longer than expected. The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to American airspace.

Representatives from winning states were jubilant about the FAA announcement and the likelihood that the testing will draw companies interested in cashing in on the fledgling industry.

“This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy,” said U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, called the announcement a “slam dunk” for central and northern New York.

The FAA said the research and development to be conducted at Griffiss Airport in Rome in Oneida County will look into integrating drones into the congested Northeast airspace.

An alliance of more than 40 public, private and academic organizations in New York and Massachusetts will operate the Rome site. The county-owned Rome airport is home to an Air Force research lab.

The airspace covered in the FAA license stretches from Syracuse and Fort Drum to the Massachusetts coast. The initiative is expected to bring as much as $700 million to the two states, along with 2,700 jobs.

The alliance, called the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, is led by the Syracuse-based CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity and MassDevelopment, a Massachusetts finance and development agency. Its members include Lockheed Martin and about a dozen colleges and universities, including the University of Buffalo, Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University in Boston.

The competition for a test site was robust, Huerta said, as 25 entities in 24 states submitted proposals. At least one of the six sites chosen will be up and running within 180 days, while the others are expected to come online in quick succession, he said during a conference call with reporters.

The designations don’t come with a financial award from the government.

Tests will determine whether drones can detect and avoid obstacles — including other aircraft — and whether they can operate safely when they lose contact with their operators.

“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.

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 growing drone industry has critics among conservatives and liberals.

Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to “a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,” the American Civil Liberties Union declared in a report last December.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill that would prohibit drones from checking for criminal or regulatory violations without a warrant.

“I just don’t like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates,” Paul said in an interview, referring to a New York City ban on supersized soft drinks.

Huerta said his agency is sensitive to privacy concerns involving drones. Test sites must have a written plan for data use and retention and will be required to conduct an annual review of privacy practices that involves public comment.

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