North Dakota’s ready for testing UASs, but there appears to be “A cool Hand Luke” problem about what the FAA expects

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North Dakota’s Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site is getting ready to explore the potential and technical capabilities of the UAS. This test site became operational on April 21, 2014

The below article elaborates on that good news, but also the author includes a fairly discouraging description of what the test site wants from the FAA and what that state organization has to do under the federal requirements.

First, the positive aspects of the North Dakota test site. The FAA conducted a three day review of the North Plains’ program, procedures, operations and other elements and evidentially they are in “good shape”.

Second, the test site has attracted a strong stable of private companies which want to test their UASs. Its director Bob Becklund characterized the situation as follows:

“The phone is ringing off the hook — and that’s not an exaggeration — with individuals, companies and industries that want to fly their airplane legally.”

The best example of the interest in the ND test platform is that Mr. Becklund is signing contracts for testing of these innovative vehicles.

That said, there are the following disappointing statements about the status of the FAA’s design of the test parameters for this site, as to funding of research and in regard to approval of the airspace access:

The FAA hasn’t identified specific research directions each test site should take, but Becklund expects to see those released by the end of the year. No funding announcements for that research have been made.

For now, North Dakota and the other five test sites would serve mainly as opportunities for businesses and individuals to certify their aircraft’s airworthiness.

The test site has submitted two proposals for airspace access, both of which were denied by the FAA. A third request is pending and would include a large portion of airspace north of Interstate 94 in North Dakota, Becklund said.”

To quote Cool Hand Luke, What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…” The FAA accepted the research program which North Dakota’s Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site articulated in its application; specifically (as summarized by the FAA in its announcement of the ND selection):

“North Dakota plans to develop UAS airworthiness essential data and validate high reliability link technology. This applicant will also conduct human factors research. North Dakota’s application was the only one to offer a test range in the Temperate (continental) climate zone and included a variety of different airspace which will benefit multiple users.”

When the FAA approved this site, it recited the specific elements of what it understood the Northern Plains Test Site would do:

“The main goal of this site’s initial operations is to show that UAS can check soil quality and the status of crops in support of North Dakota State University/Extension Service precision agriculture research studies. Precision agriculture is one of many industries that represent areas for significant economic opportunity and UAS-industry expansion.

While supporting the precision agriculture project, the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site also will collect safety-related operational data needed for UAS airspace integration. The information will help the FAA analyze current processes for establishing small UAS airworthiness and system maturity. Maintenance data collected during site operations will support a prototype database for UAS maintenance and repair.

‘These data will lay the groundwork for reducing risks and ensuring continued safe operations of UAS,’ said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who was in North Dakota today to announce the news. ‘We believe the test site programs will be extremely valuable to integrating unmanned aircraft and fostering America’s leadership in advancing this technology.’”

If there really is a need for further clarification, both parties need to start talking NOW; not wait until the end of the year.

The issue of federal funding for research raised by North Dakota, the FAA’s guidance on this point was included in a “Frequently Asked Questions” page (January, 2014):

What is the FAA’s budget for the Test Site Program?

The site operators and users will provide funding for their research activities. Congress has not appropriated federal funds for test site operations or research.”

So accordingly, it appears that there will be no funding except those provided by the state and those raised by UAS test site users.

As to the air traffic clearances, after two ND submissions and two denials, it would appear to need a cooperative process with the FAA ATO helping the applicant. The definition of the airspace and the defining of appropriate procedures are complicated and do not appear to be well suited for a “twenty questions” process.

The FAA has a 2015 deadline to complete its regulatory regimes. It has announced that the test sites will provide critical data and experience for those final rules. Six sites were selected December 30, 2013. It is almost 9 months from that decision and there appear to be major gaps between the expectations of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site and the FAA’s defined test obligations. Cool Hand Luke’s mantra appears to be apt here.

This apparent lack of understanding between these parties does not evidence the sort of expedited pace which the FAA needs to attain its deadline!

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