While pressure mounts for the FAA to issue regulations to incorporate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into national airspace systems and the challenges to the FAA’s current positions on UAS are in judicial limbo [see Commercial Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems? Are they legal? and FAA Faces Recent Challenges Over Restrictions on Operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)] the FAA continues to move forward with the mandates set forth in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

Just last week, on May 5, 2014, the FAA announced the second UAS test site to become operational is the site operated by the University of Alaska.  The FAA granted the University a two-year Certificate or Waiver of Authorization (COA) that authorizes the University the authority to fly the Aeryon Scout at the University’s Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range.  Flight operations began immediately at the University’s Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station.  The primary purpose of the University’s missions is to show that UAS can locate, identify and count large wild animals.

The first test site, which is operated by the North Dakota Department of Commerce, became operational on April 21, 2014.  North Dakota’s COA is also good for two years and it allows North Dakota to operate a Draganflyer X4ES.  Demonstrating that the UAS can check soil quality and status of crops is the primary purpose of North Dakota’s mission.  North Dakota was expected to begin test flights last week.

As a result of the requirement from Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012that the FAA to set up a test site program, the FAA selected six test sites. The FAA chose State of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christy, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to operate such test sites, in addition to the two that are currently operational.   It has been reported that Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS integration office, said in a February briefing to RTCA Special Committee 228 that the FAA’s “long-term vision is for the ranges to be delegated the authority to issue experimental airworthiness certificates.”

The purpose of the test site program is to allow the FAA access to research findings to evaluate how to safely accomplish integrate UAS into US airspace.  To that end, in addition to their primary purposes, both test sites will be collecting safety-related operational data. Also, the University of Alaska’s will be evaluating procedures for coordination with air traffic controllers, and North Dakota will be providing maintenance data.

While the FAA appears to have long term visions for the test sites and is continuing down the research path and it is likely that good information will be obtained from the test sites, it will be interesting to see if the data can be collected fast enough to please the industry.