Undaunted after losing out on a federal drone-testing contract, proponents of the unmanned-aircraft industry in Southern Arizona are launching a private drone-testing site in Sierra Vista.
“Everyone knows this is an opportunity, and we said, ‘How can we leverage what we’ve already put into place over the past two years?’” said Mignonne Hollis, executive director of the Sierra Vista Economic Development Foundation. The nonprofit has taken a leading role in the project.
From 2011 to 2013 Hollis worked with players including the Arizona Commerce Authority and unmanned-aircraft consulting firm Thompson-Wimmer to submit a bid for the testing-site contract. After Arizona’s bid was rejected, the group shifted tactics to building a test site geared toward small, entrepreneurial companies, ensuring Arizona will still play a role in the nascent unmanned-aircraft industry, Hollis said.
The FAA-selected test sites — in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia — will help the administration comply with a 2012 congressional mandate to safely incorporate commercial unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace.
Sales of civilian and military drones worldwide could hit $89 billion in the next decade, says the Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based research company.
The new Sierra Vista testing facility, Four Pillars, is a private airport with two runways on 160 acres in Cochise County.
In its first year the facility will be funded by about $250,000 from the Sierra Vista Economic Foundation’s reserve funds, Hollis said. The foundation will also connect aerospace companies with regional airports that can also provide testing space, including airports in Benson, Bisbee and Yuma, she said.
Unmanned-aircraft firms must get an FAA certificate of airworthiness for each aircraft to test it. The company’s proposed test location must also be approved by the FAA, which can take upward of 10 months, said Trish Thompson, CEO of Thompson-Wimmer in Sierra Vista.
But some residents of the communities surrounding the test sites are worried about the impact of widespread drone testing.
In Cascabel, about 30 miles north of the Benson Municipal Airport, conservationist Anna Lands is concerned about the potential for crashes and noise pollution, as well as the impact on the migratory birds and land animals that travel the San Pedro River Valley.
“The people and animals that live in the area that would be in a test range are not considered,” said Lands, a member of the Cascabel Conservation Association. “When Benson was looking at being a test site (for the FAA), the only thing that was said about north of Benson was, ‘There are few structures and few people.’ It’s so easy for proponents to minimize the effects.”
Although commercial drone use outside approved sites is still illegal in the U.S., supporters envision ranchers one day checking on their cattle and fences while sitting at their breakfast tables, firefighters scoping out a wildfire from a safe distance or farmers remotely inspecting distant fields for pests or predators.
Airspace for product development and testing has been limited, and that means pent-up demand from entrepreneurs, Hollis said.
Tucson-based Cyclone ADG has committed to using the Four Pillars site to test their unmanned aircraft, and Four Pillars is fielding calls from companies in California, North Dakota and New Mexico, Hollis said.
“We weren’t quite expecting the floodgates to open as much as they have the past few days,” she said. “We’re already feeling like we need to hire more people and get more airspace.”
Scott Rollefstad, founder and chief technology officer of Cyclone ADG, said he started developing his 28-inch unmanned aircraft, the Cyclone-6, after the shooting of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in 2010. The aircraft can help law enforcement or firefighters assess a situation before putting agents in harm’s way, he said.
“There are so many life-saving applications to this,” he said. “Our biggest hope and concern right now is bridging the gap with the public and beginning to (convey) how useful these are for public protectors.”
But safety and privacy concerns still plague the drone industry, which is still centered in the military arena.
“The prospect of cheap, small, portable flying surveillance platforms threatens to eradicate existing practical limits on aerial monitoring and allow for pervasive surveillance,” Christopher Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union said in written testimony presented during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday.
Over the past two decades, the accident rate for unmanned aircraft was worse than all other types of aircraft, Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, said at the hearing. But, she said, rates are improving and some military drones are safer than private planes.
Supporters say new testing sites will bring jobs and encourage aerospace businesses to move to Arizona.
“In order to turn the economy around in Arizona, we need to show companies we’re open for business and what we have is valuable,” state Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said in a news release. “The test site fits in perfectly with that goal and I fully support the efforts.”
Cochise County Supervisor Richard Searle said the drone site will strengthen the county.
“It’s not only using resources we already have available, but it’s also bringing in a new industry and connections,” he said in a news release.
Bloomberg News contributed to this story.