Florida will pursue drone business, despite snub

5:55 PM, Dec 31, 2013   |    comments
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NASA Global Hawk robotic jet sits at Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.



(Florida Today) -- Florida will press ahead with efforts to attract the fast-growing drone industry despite a failed bid to become a federal test range for the developing technology.

The state was not among six places the Federal Aviation Administration named Monday, from among 25 applicants, to research how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace as soon as 2015.

Space Florida said the $1.5 million it spent to lead a statewide proposal to the FAA would pay off over the long term.

"I was disappointed, clearly, that Florida was not selected," said Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello. "The fact that we aren't an FAA-designated test site doesn't mean we won't be a national test site of own."

Space Florida's plan offered a network of up to 12 ranges across four areas of the state, including Cape Canaveral, and included a mobile system for tracking test flights.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was "disappointed that Florida lost out on this opportunity to utilize its aerospace expertise, but he is confident that it will continue to be a leader in the aerospace industry," said spokeswoman Brooke Sammon.

The FAA awards provide no funding, but are expected to position the winners at the forefront of an industry expected to grow to $11.6 billion annual spending within a decade, according to a Teal Group market study.

The winners were the University of Alaska, state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in upstate New York, North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, and Virginia Tech.

The first test range should be operational within six months, and they will run at least into 2017.

"What we were really looking for was a good mix of different airspace configurations as well as different climatic conditions," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters Monday.

Congress has required the FAA to demonstrate the ability for unmanned systems to fly safely in the same airspace used by commercial airliners and private pilots by 2015.

Huerta said that integration would likely be "staged" based on the size and complexity of the systems and geography.

"What we have (now) is a platform to conduct broad-based research considering a wide variety of different factors, and we'll see where the research takes us," he said.

Drones range in size and uses from the military-style Guardians that U.S. Customs and Border Protection flies out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, to hand-launched aircraft the University of Florida has developed for environmental research.

Their commercial applications are nearly unlimited, recently highlighted by Amazon.com's claim that it planned to use them to deliver packages.

Privacy advocates have called for limits and transparency in the type of surveillance and data collection drones can perform.

In April, the Florida Legislature passed the "Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act" restricting law enforcement's use of drones. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne and was signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The law, which went into effect in July, prevents law enforcement from using drones unless a judge has issued a warrant or unless there is a "high risk of terrorist attack" or imminent danger, such as in a case involving a missing person.

Tapping the industry's growth has been one of Space Florida's key strategies to grow the state's aerospace industry and offset some of the jobs lost with NASA's retirement of the shuttle program in 2011.

The agency believed it had submitted one of the most comprehensive proposals to the FAA.

While the federal sites focus on the rules for integrating drones into the national airspace, DiBello said Florida would seek to attract the companies and agencies developing vehicles and sensors, taking advantage of a mobile tracking system developed as part of the FAA proposal.

Orlando will host the industry's biggest annual conference in May, during which Space Florida plans a demonstration of small drone operations near Kennedy Space Center.

"We're responding more to the marketplace," said DiBello. "We are well placed in this industry."

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