50 teams from 37 states vying to make a name in drone testing

Civilian market remains untapped and worth billions
2013-03-28T00:00:00Z 50 teams from 37 states vying to make a name in drone testingThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

LOS ANGELES - It's the land where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, where the space shuttle fleet rolled off the assembly line and where the first private manned rocketship climbed to space.

Capitalizing on Southern California's aerospace fortunes, two rival groups want to add another laurel: drone test range.

They face crowded competition. In search of an economic boost, more than half the country is looking toward the sky - expected to be buzzing in the near future with pilotless aircraft.

Before that can become reality, the Federal Aviation Administration last month put out a call to test-fly drones at half a dozen to-be-determined sites before they can share the same space as commercial jetliners, small aircraft and helicopters.

Fifty teams from 37 states answered, vying to win bragging rights as a hub for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The military has long flown drones overseas to support troops, spy on enemies and fire missiles. There's a recent clamor to fly them domestically to track the health of crops, fight wildfires in remote terrain, conduct search and rescue after a disaster and perform other chores considered too "dirty, dull or dangerous" for pilots. The expanding use for drones comes amid concerns of a "Big Brother" society.

The untapped civilian market - estimated to be worth billions - has created a face-off, with states perfecting their pitch - ample restricted airspace, industry connections, academic partners - not unlike what you might read in a tourism brochure.

"It's the chance to get in on the ground floor of what may be the next big business," said Peter Singer, a robotics expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "The states competing hope it might make them the robotics equivalent of Detroit for automobiles in the 20th century or Silicon Valley for computers."

Winners will play key roles in helping the government seamlessly transition drones, which are controlled remotely by joystick, into the civilian airspace without crashing into other planes or injuring bystanders.

The FAA is expected to choose the six drone test sites by year's end.

The specter of thousands of unmanned eyes swarming the sky in the coming years has unnerved privacy advocates, who fear ordinary Americans would be overzealously monitored by law enforcement, considered one of the top users of the technology in the future. As part of the selection process, test site hopefuls must publish a privacy policy and follow existing privacy laws.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International does not have a favorite. But the voice for the domestic drone industry acknowledged that states hosting test sites would benefit economically.

In a report published earlier this month, the group said states with an already solid aerospace industry are predicted to gain drone business. But other factors, including location of test sites, will also drive job creation.

That's why California needs to act fast, said state Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, who has been pushing for a test site in his district.

"This is a great opportunity for California," he said. "We might be able to recapture some of the golden era of aerospace."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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