Arizona's bid to test drones falls through - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Arizona's bid to test drones falls through

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Posted: Monday, December 30, 2013 7:15 pm

Arizona's bid to become a test site for unmanned drones was rejected Monday as federal officials picked six other proposals.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the six diverse test sites will give the agency the best chance of meeting its congressional mandate to ensure the vehicles can be safely integrated into air space with piloted craft. In a formal release, the agency said the chosen sites provide the needed diversity.

That diversity includes two sites in the Southwest: Nevada and Texas. That, coupled with Alaska, New York, North Dakota and Virginia, left Arizona out of the running.

Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, who had introduced legislation earlier this year in hopes of improving the state's chances, told Capitol Media Services he believes politics was involved in the final choices. But pressed for specifics, Forese provided none, other than a generic charge.

“Is there anything that's not political?” he asked. “It is what it is.”

Forese said he does not believe this is the end of the matter. He said Arizona now could try to partner with one of the winning states to share some of the mission, perhaps in training “pilots” to fly the remote-controlled devices.

The FAA action follows 2012 federal legislation to establish six test sites. The law required the agency, in consultation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Defense, to consider geographic diversity, climate diversity, location of necessary infrastructure already on the ground as well as research needs.

Submissions were received from 25 entities in 24 states.

“We believe we had a good, competitive application,” said Andrew Wilder, press aide to Gov. Jan Brewer. The governor herself made a personal bid last year during a trip to Washington, meeting with officials from FAA and the Department of Transportation.

More than just boasting rights were at issue. The contracts are expected to bring thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars of federal revenues to the winning bidders.

Arizona's application put together a consortium of interests, ranging from the state's three universities and airports in Benson, Prescott, Yuma and Safford, to private companies in the state ranging from missile-building Raytheon to Thompson-Wimmer Inc., a Sierra Vista firm which produces technology for unmanned aircraft.

It cited various sites that would be suitable for testing around those airports and even into the lower California desert.

But the FAA found things to its liking in other states — including some of the benefits that Arizona was hoping would sway the agency its way.

For example, the agency said Nevada has geographic and climatic diversity for its part of the testing. That includes not only creating standards and certification requirements for operators but looking at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with introducing unmanned vehicles into a system built for piloted civilian aircraft.

Texas A&M University scored a win for its plans to develop safety system requirements for vehicles, with that state also cited geographic and climactic diversity.

The University of Alaska managed to snare one of the contracts, promising test sites in Hawaii and Oregon. Virginia also was a winner, as was New York's Griffiss International Airport near Rome, with the FAA saying that site provides a good place to figure out “the complexities of integrated unmanned aircraft systems into the congested northeast airspace.”

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