BOISE, Idaho — A former U.S. Navy aviator thinks Idaho has "great potential" as a test site for civilian drones and other unmanned aircraft.
State Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, introduced a resolution into the Legislature Thursday encouraging the state Department of Commerce to try and get Idaho designated as one of six unmanned aerial vehicle test sites in the nation.
Winder, who served four years in the Navy and eight years in the Naval Reserve, asked the department to work with the University of Idaho, Boise State University and other stakeholders in developing a proposal for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Two years ago, Congress tasked the FAA with selecting the test sites, which will serve as research and development hubs for the drone industry and help the agency craft the regulations and operating procedures needed to integrate unmanned aircraft into the North American airspace in the coming years.
At least 50 government, university and industry groups are working on unmanned aerial vehicle designs. The aircraft can be programmed to follow specific flight patterns and perform certain functions. Some weigh as little as 4 ounces and have 6-inch wingspans; others have 240-foot wingspans and weigh as much as 32,000 pounds.
Aviation experts think drones will eventually be used for everything from crop and weather monitoring to search and rescue missions. From a communications standpoint, they could provide cellphone coverage in remote areas or help incident managers decide how to fight wildfires.
"There's a lot of future potential," Winder said. "There's talk of developing unmanned cargo aircraft that could deliver product around the world. It's intriguing to me. It doesn't have the swagger of an open cockpit and scarf around the neck, but I think it's the way of the future."
Two U.S. Air Force officers approached Winder about the test site opportunity last year. He sees it as an economic development opportunity and thinks Idaho can make a strong case for a test site, both because its landscape is so open and because the Idaho National Laboratory already does some development work with unmanned aircraft.
To address any privacy concerns, Winder also introduced a companion bill that would prohibit unmanned aircraft from being used to conduct surveillance, except with permission of the landowner or by law enforcement agencies acting under a court order.
The FAA initially expected to have all six sites selected by the end of 2012, but has pushed back its timeline because of security and privacy concerns.
"There's clearly some urgency to get ourselves in the queue and prepare to move forward," Winder said.
Competition for the test sites is expected to be stiff. Washington State, for example, has been gearing up for the past year to submit its application. Washington State University is part of the coalition leading that effort; it also includes the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, as well as Boeing and other commercial firms.
They're looking at two potential locations for a test site: the Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake — formerly Larson Air Force Base — or a site near Grays Harbor.
Possible sites in Idaho, Winder said, include the INL property near Idaho Falls or a remote runway at Gowan Field in Boise.