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FAA seeks public input in shaping of drone test site policy

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — The Federal Aviation Administration has restarted its process to select six national test ranges for unmanned aircraft systems, but that doesn’t mean the privacy concerns that halted it have been resolved.

The FAA is turning to the public for input to shape the privacy requirements for the test sites — one of which could see UAS taking off from the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and attract businesses wanting to research and build drones.

“What’s in our final language will be determined as we go through the public comment period,” FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said Tuesday.

Last week the FAA opened the application process back up, calling for applications from interested sites.

Based on a preliminary analysis, the competition likely will be among 20 to 25 applicants, according to Mo McDonald, vice president of military affairs for the Dayton Development Coalition.

The coalition, which advocates on behalf of the 14-county region, is preparing the state of Ohio’s application and envisions the launch and recovery of unmanned aircrafts at existing facilities in Springfield and at the Wilmington Air Park.

Proposals are due to the FAA by May 6 — about the same amount of time the administration will accept public comments on privacy requirements.

The FAA, which delayed the test site selection last fall out of concerns for privacy and safety, proposed language Feb. 14 stating that site operators must establish their own privacy policies that are available to the public. Site operators also will be required to operate within existing privacy laws.

Operators will also be subject to any legislation or regulation regarding UAS or privacy.

Public comments will be accepted at www.regulations.gov. The docket number is FAA-2013-0061.

Many unmanned systems can’t see people, said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial, a company located at Springfield-Beckley.

Rather, many in the industry predict a range of benign civilian tasks for them, from inspecting crop damage to observing traffic patterns.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., is happy the FAA wants public input.

“It is welcome,” EPIC lawyer Amie Stepanovich said. “It shows that the FAA is taking this issue seriously.”

She said the FAA is in a unique position to ensure that privacy protections are guaranteed from drones – especially before the surveillance technology aboard them gets even more advanced.

“This is the perfect time to address the very real privacy issues,” she said.

Last week’s announcement by the FAA is what Beafore and other companies have been waiting for.

“We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the supply chain and we’ve got the intellect,” Beafore said. “All we’ve got missing is the airspace.”

Between Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, local universities and existing infrastructure, including Springfield-Beckley, the case for the area to win a test site is strong, he said.

“This region is poised for this kind of endeavor,” Beafore said. “This area is perfect for this.”

Tom Franzen, Springfield assistant city manager and director of economic development, said the region’s manufacturing and engineering base would serve the UAS industry well.

“It’s an industry we’re already well-suited to serve,” Franzen said. “Some of it’s new, but it’s still utilizing the skill sets that are already here.”

Already, the FAA has granted three certificates of authorization for the restricted flying of unmanned aircraft systems at Springfield-Beckley. The Ohio Army National Guard has permission to fly the hand-launched craft known as the Raven, and Sinclair Community College has the other two certificates.

One of those Sinclair certificates will cover a craft sold by UTC Aerospace Systems and partially manufactured locally by SelectTech.

Called Vireo, the plane has a 30-inch wingspan and weighs only about 2½ pounds, Beafore said. SelectTech produced the plane’s airframe as part of an order for eight Vireos, he said, with more to come.

If the region wins a test-site designation, it would allow companies like SelectTech to do research and development here, Beafore said. Currently, he said, SelectTech can only flight-test aircraft in Indiana, near Minneapolis or Florida.

“It would lead to me literally being able to step out the door and test them,” he said.

Beafore also said the designation would attract other businesses to the area.

“We want Springfield and the rest of the region to become a key geographic area for this business,” he said, “just like Wilbur and Orville did more than 100 years ago.”
 

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