UAS Test Sites: The Evolution Continues

From unmanned aircraft systems tech park groundbreakings to historic unmanned aircraft vehicle flights, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s designated test sites are starting to realize their respective potential on the U.S. UAS industry.
By UAS Magazine Staff | April 24, 2015

Site: Northern Plains UAS Test Site
Location: North Dakota

Of Note: Armed with an FAA-issued statewide certification of authorization allowing UAS test flights over the entire state, the Northern Plains UAS Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site of North Dakota is now home to a first in the industry: a UAS tech park.

Through an agreement between the U.S. Air Force, Grand Forks County and the Grand Sky Development Co., UAS payload developers and platform manufacturers will soon have the ability to setup shop in a soon-to-be developed 217-acre tech park. The facility will feature 1.2 million square feet of hanger along with shop, lab and data center space.

“With the facilities we have, we’re going to be able to launch and land the biggest of the bigs,” said Tom Sowyer, Grand Sky president. “We plan on being able to support small- and medium-sized, too, but we have the infrastructure to support Global Hawks and larger. And we also have the infrastructure to support the chase planes and whatever else we need to do to fly safely.”

Northrop Grumman Corp. has already signed a lease agreement to become the first anchor tenant of the facility. According to Sowyer, the tech park will become the first commercial drone airport in the world. “This unprecedented public/private venture between the Air Force, county and the private sector will allow government and private firms to have a home base as they fly their drones in North Dakota and around the country.”

In addition to the Grand Forks facility, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site has other testing locations across the state. And, due to the state-wide COA, Robert Backlund, the test site’s executive director said that, “no matter what specific application a company might be interested in for aeronautical research, we can find a place in North Dakota, and we can help find a cooperative research partner through the universities and the landowners that want to participate.”


Site: Pan Pacific UAS Test Range
Location: Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska

Of Note: The three-state test site including Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska has already gained notoriety for the Alaska UAS test site’s work on BP’s oil pipelines and Hawaii’s weather-related work using UAVs. Recently, the state of Oregon accomplished an impressive feat of its own by announcing a $545,000 funding round into a test site in Pendleton, Ore.

“We’ve made a significant investment as a community in unmanned aerial systems and we believe this industry is about to take off,” said Phillip Houk, Pendleton mayor. “We think there are going to be some real opportunities for Pendleton and eastern Oregon that will pay dividends for the state.”

Ryan Frank, spokesperson for Business Oregon, the state’s economic development organization, said the investment will be used to construct an industrial park at the test site. The site could house many of the state’s UAV startups, he said. SOAR Oregon, a nonprofit group funded by the state, will run the facility and the site.

“The main thing that the money is targeted for is the nuts and bolts of the operation,” Frank said. Construction could be complete as early as 2016. Test activity is already underway, however. Currently, two UAS firms have received certification of authorization (COAs) to fly at the sites, and another 20 have also applied and are planning to join the site.


Site: Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation
Location: Texas

Of Note: The Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation has the airspace needed for several short- and long-range flights, and now it is looking to add ground infrastructure. The site has already partnered with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Engineering Experiment Station, the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute and Camber Corp. There are currently two COAs for the site.

LSUASC has already tested a ground-based sense-and-avoid system, logged nearly 100 range-operation hours, including more than 17 flight hours, and hired 20 full-time employees in Corpus Christi.

“Our opportunities are basically dependent on our funding stream. Financing our operations is a No. 1 priority for us,” says Ron George, senior research development officer with Texas A&M Corpus Christi. “We believe that we have plans in place, we have things underway at this moment that we believe are going to be fruitful for us, so that’s job one in my office—is the money.”

In 2015, LSUASC plans to complete building its already proposed infrastructure. The infrastructure includes several flight ranges along with building components at each site. The Lone Star Test site team also intends to continue to assess environmental impacts of UAS operations at launch and recovery sites and within the volume of authorized airspace.


Site: Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership
Location: Virginia

Of Note: The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) FAA-selected UAS test site located in Virginia, has seen a pent-up demand for UAS technology in business and industry. “Many entrepreneurs and businesses want to fly UAS and to do so in a legal manner,” MAAP told UAS Magazine. “They want to work with MAAP and its partners to make it happen.”

Since September 2014, MAAP has been a constant on the UAS achievement timeline. Last year, it worked with law enforcement officials to use UAV’s in a search and rescue mission for a missing University of Virginia student (the first use of the technology for the application in school history). In March, MAAP conducted its first flight using a fixed-wing UAV to inspect an energy pipeline route.

With the help of its main partners, University of Maryland, the state of Maryland, Rutgers University and the state of New Jersey, the site hopes to achieve three main things this year: advance overall UAS technology by flying more complex operations, conduct more operations in Maryland and New Jersey, and continue research flights using UAS for oil pipeline inspections.

MAAP has also worked on forensic testing for faux crash scenes, detecting radiation for potential use in a Fukishima nuclear power plant disaster situation, surveyed cropland and probed clouds to study microorganisms.

The demand for MAAP’s ability to provide UAS technology to the public through testing can been seen clearly through its work with a coalition of news organizations, according to MAAP. The team at MAAP is currently working with users (reporters) and the FAA to determine the best equipment and training needs for the use of sUAVs on a news site. The group of news organizations includes The Washington Post, The New York Times Co., NBCUniversal, Getty Images and several others.


Site: Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems
Location: Nevada

Of Note: With one major test flight behind it, the Nevada UAS test site has its eyes on several 2015 initiatives. The site, run by the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems includes the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the University of Nevada, Reno and Las Vegas, and the Desert Research Institute as major partners. In 2015, the site’s main objectives include research on air traffic control procedures and how they might evolve after the introduction of UAS into the civil environment with NextGen; a focus on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements; improving navigation and control of autonomous systems to develop applications related to environmental science and land management, and to help develop applications such as cloud seeding to fight forest fires.

Earlier this year, the site conducted its first ever test flight using the Sensurion MAGPIE MP-1, fixed wind UAV. At the time of the flight, Joe Burns, Sensurion CEO, said that it was a great day for all parties involved and that it was “an important step forward in the unmanned aircraft industry, and for aviation innovation in Nevada.” The UAV used in test flight was one of the first to carry a registration number provided by the FAA.

Along with its MAGPIE MP-1 flight, the Nevada site has also been granted a COA to use an Insitu ScanEagle at the Desert Rock Airport and partnered with Flirtey, a technology developer that provides real-time delivery using UAVs.

2015 Plans:
-Research evolution of UAS integration into current air traffic control operations
-Develop UAV operator standards
-Improving autonomous systems


Site: Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance
Location: New York, Northern Michigan

Of Note: Griffis International Airport is the unofficial home for some of the New York UAS test site’s major achievements. At Griffis, NUAIR has become a fully operational test site, safely flown UAS in the class D airspace at Griffis under tower control without interruption to regular manned-aircraft traffic and even started the installation of a ground-based sense-and-avoid system.

With its three most important partners, the state of New York, SRC Inc.’s Saab Sensis Corp. team and Lockheed Martin Corp., NUAIR has already received four agriculture COAs with Cornell Cooperative Extension for fixed-wings UAVs, three with FlyTerra for one fixed-wing and two rotary-wing UAV applications, two with Lockheed Martin Corp. for the U.S. Department of Interior demonstrations using a fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAV, and, one research and development COA with Logos Technologies for a powered parasail UAV.

According to the NUAIR team, during the first year of operation, it had roughly 900 test site inquiries that resulted in seven test proponents and approximately 50 test sorties flown. In 2014, there were more than 150 media interviews conducted and articles written on the site. NUAIR has released requests for information on roughly 40 technical or research-based projects, and received 36 responses. Both NASA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have sent teams to tour the Griffis location.

This year, growth at the site will include further work on testing beyond visual line-of-sight and ground-based sense-and-avoid systems.

UAS applications tested by NUAIR:
1. Precision agriculture
2. Wildfire fighting
3. Pipeline patrol
4. Missions for the New York Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Conservation
5. UAS platform research and development