David Mildenberg (c) 2013, Bloomberg News
AUSTIN, Texas — The idea of drones buzzing the skies, delivering packages and spreading seeds, has set off a race among 24 U.S. states to win permission to open testing facilities to see whether unmanned aircraft can co-exist with passenger jets.
States from Massachusetts to California are seeking to build and run centers where private researchers will study how to operate drones without crashing into planes or houses. The Federal Aviation Administration, in preparation for a decision on opening the skies to robots, says it plans to select six sites this month.
The U.S. has used drones for years to hunt terrorists in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now states seek jobs from research into domestic uses, such as spotting forest fires, shooting movies, spreading seeds and, as envisioned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, delivering packages to homes. Officials say testing sites would attract manufacturers.
“When you have a test site, it really sets you up to participate in the industry’s growth for a long time,” said Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma’s secretary of science and innovation, who is leading an effort to obtain FAA approval. “It’s likely to be the biggest area of growth in the aerospace industry in terms of new jobs and new product lines.”
The biggest barrier to widespread U.S. use is the question of how to prevent them from crashing into 70,000 manned aircraft flights a day. Residents and some state lawmakers also are trying to slow the introduction of drones, or limit their capabilities, saying they threaten privacy.
The FAA has approved about 1,000 permits allowing noncommercial drone flights and issued orders to those operating without permits to stop. Congress directed the agency to write rules for drones weighing less than 55 pounds and to begin integrating them into airspace by 2015. Lawmakers also called for the six testing sites.
The FAA said in November that it expects to require small drones be controlled by a human operator on the ground, as opposed to the robotic flights envisioned by Bezos. The craft must also stay within the operator’s sight and only fly in unpopulated areas.
There will be almost 250,000 domestic unmanned aircraft in use by 2035, a study by the U.S. Transportation Department found. The drone industry says relaxed rules may lead to the creation of 70,000 jobs in three years. Expenditures on civilian and military drones around the world are expected to total $89 billion during the next decade, according to a forecast by the Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based aerospace research company.
“If we build a test site, we think we can attract five or 10 companies across the state involving manufacturing or services related to unmanned aerial systems,” said Kyle Snyder, a North Carolina State University official in Raleigh working with the state economic development agency on a bid. “Our state is strong in software development and data analytics, and that’s where we expect to see job growth.”
Major drone makers include Northrop Grumman Corp., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and AeroVironment Inc.
Texas expects a test site will cost about $50 million over five years for buildings, equipment and operating expenses, said Luis Cifuentes, a vice president at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, who is helping the state sell itself.
States, universities or local governments will own and operate the testing sites. They will charge companies for their use and collect research grants to supplement money supplied from state and university budgets, Cifuentes said.
States anticipate jobs near the sites, said Andrea Bianchi, program manager for a joint effort by New York and Massachusetts to locate a facility in each state.
“That’s where the research and development will occur,” Bianchi said.
Oklahoma is among the most aggressive campaigners, with Gov. Mary Fallin, R, attending aerospace industry events and lobbying members of Congress, McKeever said.
The FAA has said it will select places with geographic and climate diversity and will also consider research needs, population density and air traffic.
Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman, declined to say what testing would be permitted at the six sites, or whether states could obtain permission to do similar tests outside those locations.
Companies developing drones expect to “have the opportunity to operate in the test site space more freely and do more test flights with more types of systems,” said Todd McNamee, an airport director for Ventura County, California, and lead applicant for his region’s bid.
Even so, economic development officials and university researchers in North Carolina and North Dakota — among those being considered to host the six sites — say they will seek FAA permission to conduct tests even if they aren’t selected.
Interest jumped after Bezos, in a Dec. 1 interview on CBS TV’s “60 Minutes,” said his company may use drones to deliver packages within five years.
Testing will initially focus on fertilizing crops and rescuing stranded hikers because they involve less risk of hurting people or property than package delivery does, McNamee said.
Yet some lawmakers are wary.
Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia passed laws regulating drones this year, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group based in San Francisco.
Fallin earlier this year asked an Oklahoma Republican lawmaker to drop legislation limiting law-enforcement use of drones, saying it could hurt the state’s chances. Representative Paul Wesselhoft agreed, though he disputed that the legislation would affect testing.
Some communities are more concerned over privacy violations than wooed by the promise of jobs. In Texas, residents and political leaders in one possible testing location rallied against the plan. The city council of Alpine, in the western part of the state near the Mexico border, denied use of its airport for a testing facility.
“Does that mean you are going to ID cars and people walking around enjoying their evening and their back yards?” Mayor Avinash Rangra said. “Is it going to be 24-7? We asked about use of night vision. The answers weren’t forthcoming.”
Texas officials said they’d find another location.
— With assistance from Alan Levin in Washington.