Virginia Tech Drone Test Site Operational

The Virginia Tech site is the last of six nationwide to open

A drone test site at Virginia Tech is now operational, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday. It is the last of six sites nationwide to open.

The test site will conduct research vital to integrating the aircraft into U.S. skies, the FAA said in a press release.

"We have undertaken the challenge of safely integrating a new and exciting technology into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the release.

The administration announced that the university would be one of the six sites last year. Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota and Texas host the other five research sites.

In Virginia's case, the test site is based at Tech but will include test areas in Virginia and New Jersey, according to the FAA.

When the announcement was made Wednesday FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe were shown a demonstration of a drone being developed to research vehicle and highway systems. It is one of the models which will be researched at Virginia Tech.

That research will also eventually include testing of agricultural spray equipment, as well as the development of training and safety procedures for agricultural surveys conducted by drones.

Drones -- unmanned aircraft that can be large or small -- have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the market. Many universities are starting or expanding drone programs.

"Having all six national test sites up and running will give us more and better data to help expand the safe use of unmanned aircraft into our airspace," Huerta said in Wednesday's press release.

The FAA said when selecting the sites it considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, aviation experience and risk.

In the case of Alaska, the FAA cited a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones. New York's site at Griffiss International Airport looks into integrating drones into the congested northeast airspace.

The state of North Dakota committed $5 million to the venture and named a former state Air National Guard Commander as its test site director.

The FAA does not allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede the project may take longer than expected. The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to American airspace.

An industry-commissioned study has predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens drone restrictions on U.S. skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.

When the FAA announced the test sites last year, Representatives from the winning sites were jubilant.

"This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy,'' U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said at the time.

The growing drone industry has critics among conservatives and liberals.

Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to "a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,'' the American Civil Liberties Union declared in a report in 2012.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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