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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

FAA Approves Six States To Test Drones

The University of North Dakota conducts research and even grants degrees in unmanned aircraft systems. North Dakota is also one of six states that the FAA approved to build test sites for commercial drones. (University of North Dakota)

The University of North Dakota conducts research and even grants degrees in unmanned aircraft systems. North Dakota is also one of six states that the FAA approved to build test sites for drones. (University of North Dakota)

The Federal Aviation Administration says six states will be allowed to develop test sites for drones, as it seeks to safely introduce commercial drones into U.S. airspace.

Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Virginia and Texas will host the research sites.

This is seen as a critical step toward what analysts think will be a huge industry that could create thousands of jobs.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with John Valasek, a professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, about the potential for unmanned aircrafts.

Valasek’s team is developing drones for humanitarian relief, crop dusting, infrastructure assessment and environmental monitoring.

Drones have raised issues of privacy, and they have had trouble shaking off their association with military drones. But Valasek is optimistic about the future commercial domestic use of drones.

“I think the drones are going to be here to stay, but I also believe that they need to be introduced carefully and sequentially, along with proper regulations in their use and operations,” Valasek said. “And once this is done  — and it’s being worked on right now — they’ll find their proper use and fit in nicely with manned aircrafts, with civilian applications, with all of our daily lives.”


  • John Valasek, professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University.



Well, we want to learn more now about those sites picked by the FAA to begin testing unmanned aircraft systems or UAS or drones. Of course the military uses drones, but yesterday's FAA announcement was about domestic use by farmers, researchers. Amazon is hoping to use them to deliver packages.

Right now commercial use is illegal, but Congress has mandated that drones be safely integrated into airspace by 2015. Twenty-four states submitted bids. The six states picked include Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Virginia and Texas. The site in Texas is Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.

John Valasek is a professor of aerospace engineering there, and John, first your sense of how big a deal this is. The FAA doesn't often introduce new airspace vehicles.

JOHN VALASEK: No, this is quite groundbreaking, and it's a very, very welcome addition to the different thing that the FAA regulates and sets standards for. And this has really, really large implications for all kinds of different commercial uses, like you said, to really open it up to domestic use and operations.

YOUNG: Well, there are questions, as you know. We'll get to those. But first New York's site is at Griffiss International Airport. That's upstate in Rome, New York. They're going to work on trying to get drones into a very congested airspace in the northeast. What will your site in Texas do in particular?

VALASEK: The site in Texas is very geographically diverse because Texas has mountains, prairie, forest, desert and seashore. So all of those aspects can be wrapped into it, and there's not just one test site in Texas, there are in fact 11 different test sites distributed throughout the state.

YOUNG: Yeah, so the state was picked, but many sites. And what have you been doing already in your research?

VALASEK: So we've been working on improving the safety and airworthiness of UAS systems and specifically that's to make it more acceptable and to establish trust so that UAS systems have more trust with both the public, with the government and with private sectors, too.

YOUNG: Well, we know you've been using them to look for oil spills and check for hotspots, for wildfires. Again, this is part of your research program there. But when you talk about trust, I mean, that's one of the biggest issues. As you know, the American Civil Liberties Union is worried about privacy. So is Republican Rand Paul. He said I don't like the idea of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see if you have a Big Gulp drink, you know, that the mayor there was against.

And then there's the concern about this being conflated with the military use of drones. One of the partners in Texas is the Camber Corporation. They have military contracts. So how - in your research, how are you working to allay some of those concerns about privacy and about this conflation with the military use of drones?

VALASEK: Well, Texas has passed the Texas Privacy Act, and it's not an anti-UAS law, but really what it is, it's a privacy statute. And it supports 19 legitimate applications and uses for research of UAS, and then it also encompasses and collaborates with these FAA test centers to bring this all together so that legitimate uses of UAS are not hamstrung but also protect the privacy of the public, too.

YOUNG: Yeah.

VALASEK: So it's landmark legislation in that regard.

YOUNG: Well, and Rand Paul is introducing a bill that would prohibit drones from checking for criminal or regulatory violations without a warrant. So people are concerned about that. Meantime, what are some of the things - I mean, we've all seen the pictures, they look like big bugs, you know. What are some of the things you're seeing drones do?

VALASEK: Well really we're looking at things here such as for humanitarian relief, that's bringing in medical supplies and food to disaster sites, just like you would have at the recent Colorado floods, you know, for like Hurricane Katrina; precision agriculture, which is doing crop-dusting, irrigation to see if irrigation canals are leaking or to see that everything is working out there fine; infrastructure assessments, so looking at roads, bridges, refineries, pipelines; and then also monitoring, such as like for wildfire, wildlife, marine life and things like that; and also of course air quality control, too.

YOUNG: Is it happening? I mean, in your research, are you actually having drones do these things?

VALASEK: Yes, we are, and I have student teams right now who have been designing custom UAS for each one of the applications that I just mentioned. And I'm not alone in that. There's many different institutions and organizations throughout the United States that are working in all these different areas. So it's really booming in the domestic sector.

YOUNG: Well, the FAA is predicting as many as 7,500 commercial drones in the next five years, if this is cleared. Officials where you are in Texas are talking about money and jobs rolling into the state. One industry group predicts more than 70,000 jobs. Drone pilots, they say, could earn between $85,000 and $115,000.

This all sounds good. But do you ever worry that people might decide they don't like drones, that the industry might collapse because people just don't like the idea?

VALASEK: No, I think that the drones are going to be here to stay, but I also believe that they need to be introduced carefully and sequentially, along with proper regulations in their use and operation. And once this is done, and it's being worked on right now, they'll find their proper use and fit in nicely with manned aircraft, with civilian applications, with all of our daily lives and the things that we do.

YOUNG: Was there a time, John Valasek, again you're there in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M, was there a time - and I'm betting if there was it was in recent memory - when people thought you were crazy?

VALASEK: Well no, I've been working in the UAS area for 28 years now. And at the time, 28 years ago when I first started into this, nobody cared about it. And so it was just an area that just a very few people worked on. Nobody saw the potential of what they could do and how they could be brought into domestic use and civilian use. And so it's gained a lot of footage, say over the last 10 years or so, but it's very gratifying to see that come around and for them to finally get to see their due use.

YOUNG: Yeah, how many - what are you hearing from students? I mean, you know, some schools are opening entire majors in drone studies. What about Texas?

VALASEK: Texas has six universities that are part of the Lone Star UAS Center, and all six of these universities have significant UAS research programs where they're designing the UAS, flying the UAS, designing the operator stations, working on the safety systems, path planning and human operator interfaces. So it's a very diverse set of different technologies that can (unintelligible), and students are very excited about working on it.

YOUNG: You guys obviously feel as if you laid the groundwork for what many people believe is the inevitable future.


YOUNG: John Valasek, professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M. John, thanks so much.

VALASEK: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: Oh, and by the way, before the break, happy New Year. Well, it is in Japan.


YOUNG: Monks in Tokyo swinging a wooden pole against a huge bell, peacefully ringing in the new year, one can hope. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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