States scrambled to land one of six FAA drone test sites hoping to get rich on the next tech bubble. The FAA announced draft rules for flying unmanned, commercial drones. But GoPro-equipped toys are not all they're supposed to be testing.
March 17, 2015

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper at Creech Air Force Base, NV, one of several test sites promoted by the state.

We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] that could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States. - Pres. George W. Bush, Cincinnati, OH, October 7, 2002

That was the first time many of us heard the term "unmanned aerial vehicles." Ticking off a litany of bogus reasons for invading Iraq, Bush hoped we would collectively wet our pants in fear of unmanned drones over America unleashing death from above. That was then. This is now.

Now, looking to when the wars in the Middle East wind down, the Air Force faces a dilemma (from February 2012):

With a growing fleet of combat drones in its arsenal, the Pentagon is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to open U.S. airspace to its robotic aircraft ...

"The stuff from Afghanistan is going to come back," Steve Pennington, the Air Force's director of ranges, bases and airspace, said at the conference. The Department of Defense "doesn't want a segregated environment. We want a fully integrated environment."

Now? Now defense contractors want to get into the military drone export business.

So now, the Federal Aviation Administration is rolling out proposed rules for flying "commercial" drones — UAVs have been rebranded Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) — in U.S. airspace. The FAA has designated six sites around the country for testing how to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into its Next Generation Air Transport (NGAT) program. The FAA website features pictures of those cool, camera-equipped quadracopters hobbyists, commercial photographers, and technophiles play with. They offer handy tips: What Can I Do with my Model Aircraft? The six selected test sites offer punchy videos touting new careers and billions of dollars to be made in the exciting, new, commercial drone industry.

However, the FAA's test site program as mandated by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the plan to provide:

(H) the best methods to ensure the safe operation of civil unmanned aircraft systems and public unmanned aircraft systems simultaneously in the national airspace system;

For "public," read "military and other state or federal agency." Including your basic Reapers, Predators, and Global Hawks. Not that anyone wants to play up the military aspect of the test program. Of course, the first test site opened in Grand Forks, North Dakota, with a planned business park butted up against Grand Forks Air Force Base and sharing a runway. The first announced tenant is Northrup Grumman.

Looking at the New York test site in January, Aljazeera reported that advocates want to de-emphasize the Predator angle:

Drone supporters in the region acknowledged that creating a distinction in the public’s perception between military and non-military uses of unmanned flight is central to their goals. For example, the Cyber NY Alliance was initially incorporated as The Central New York Defense Alliance, but rebranded before beginning the push for the FAA test site.

A spokesman for the New York coalition acknowledged, "a lot of work still needs to be done for the commercial drone industry to shape public opinion." Indeed, when North Carolina tried to get its non-FAA drone testing program off the ground, public perception was also an issue, writes Barry Summers at Scrutiny Hooligans:

North Carolina’s “Next Generation Air Transportation (NGAT)” program is launched at NC State University [2012], with support from the NC Department of Transportation, and begins to assume control of the UAV program previously run by the military and the defense industry trade group. All FAA “Certificates of Authorization” for drone use in North Carolina are now held by NCSU, including those needed to operate military drones like the RQ-7 Shadow in non-military airspace. The handover wasn’t without at least a little complaining. This from a 2013 email from the commanding General of the NC National Guard:

Over one year ago I jumped on board in trying to get our UAV units flying, at this “proposed” training facility and was asked to step back in an attempt to not “militarize” this initiative – placating the concerns that a “militarized” approach would ... result in erosion of public support.

Summers attended meetings of the NC House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) set up to discuss commercial drone development and found himself more or less the only civilian in the room. The rest? Department of Defense, ex-military, National Guard, former Booz Allen Hamilton (the civilian NSA). And they were not there as advocates for GoPro or DJI quadracopters. One of the testing sites in North Carolina is described in a 2014 report to the NC General Assembly as "Private airfield in Moyock." Summers compared an image from the presentation to Google map imagery and found that it was the airfield belonging to Academi, formerly known as Blackwater. Like North Dakota's site, Summers found, North Carolina's Gull Rock Test Site butts up against the Navy's Dare County Bombing Range now reportedly operated by Northrup Grumman.

Remember Solyndra? Way back in 2011? Back when it was some kind of article of faith that "government shouldn't pick winners and losers"? That was then. This is now.

It's not that commercial drones aren't of interest to the private sector. Ask Amazon. But the military and U.S. defense contractors want access to civilian airspace for testing exportable military hardware and for keeping their drone pilots' skills sharp. Several drone testing programs are fashioned as university research programs and appear as civilian efforts. That might be understandable after George W. Bush's speech about drones attacking civilians with "chemical and biological weapons," and after revelations about widespread domestic surveillance here and abroad.

Meanwhile, in spite of the hoopla making drones look like the next tech bubble, Jason Koebler of the site, Motherboard, reports that after the Grand Forks site opened last April, by September not much in the way of testing was going on:

The site's director, Bob Becklund and his staff rushed to open the doors and then, nothing. No directive, no requirements, not even a specialized process to legally allow them to test.

"The frustrating thing is they haven’t given us some very clear research areas," Becklund told me last week in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I was meeting with officials from the test site. "They say that’s coming. There are no specific data requirements. We've just been giving them what we think is relevant."

And now, there's evidence that the very idea of the test sites is being somewhat tossed out the window, leading administrators like Becklund to wonder what, exactly, they're here for.

It's a good question. The Guardian reported last September that drones “weren’t really part of the equation when you go back to the origin of NextGen.” So what sorts of data, exactly, are these FAA test sites supposed to be compiling?

Col. Robert Becklund, by the way, is still listed as Chief Of Staff Air National Guard, North Dakota. And the FAA, Motherboard reported last week, is sending cease-and-desist letters to hobbyists who post drone videos to YouTube.

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