Why The UAS Industry Needs UAS Test Sites

The number of UAS operators or entities that have received regulatory approval to fly for-profit is impressive. Although many may have opted to forgo use of a UAS test site, the need for the sites is still great.
By Luke Geiver | August 13, 2015

The number of UAS operators or entities that have received regulatory approval to fly for-profit is impressive. Last week the FAA revealed that it had approved more than 1,000 commercial 333 exemptions, meaning more than 1,000 entities are now ready, willing or already flying UAVs for a commercial reason.

To reach the number, the FAA used a blanket approach to approve certificates of authorization—needed for every flight—that made it possible for any flight in the country below 200 feet, outside of restricted airspace (near airports, close to cities, etc.) immediately possible if the flight met those requirements. The FAA also used a summary grant process for issuing 333s—the economic greenlight needed to fly—that allowed more applicants to receive a 333 if their application matched or was similar to that of another previously awarded applicant that was granted an exemption.

The combination of blanket COAs and summary granted 333s has drastically changed the number of commercially operating UAV-linked entities. But, the numbers do not take away from the fact that the UAS industry still needs its test sites. Larger UAVs, especially those in the fixed wing category that are designed to fly for longer, carry more payload or even work in the delivery space, need to surpass the 200 foot flight height level in almost all cases. They also need massive airspaces, multiple miles long, not football fields long, to justify the time and investment required to get the platforms in the air in the first place.

Nearly every test site still has something major to offer the larger UAV firms, from airspace to runways to expertise that can’t be gained below 200 feet or through non-mentored trial and error. It can’t be any clearer to see just how important UAS test sites are than to look at the exciting announcement that came from the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota this week. Robert Becklund, test site executive director told us earlier this year the announcement could be happening. The FAA has approved the site for night flights. It has also been approved for a blanket COA for flights above 200-feet. Both are firsts for the UAS industry. It will be amazing to see what happens at the NPTS following this announcement. It will also be interesting to see what stems from work at the other test sites one year from now. Certainly, it will become apparent that the test sites were and continue to be needed by industry.