Picked to Lead Tests of Drones, 3 Universities Are 'in the Catbird Seat'

January 03, 2014

Three universities designated by the Federal Aviation Administration this week as test sites for unmanned-aircraft systems are positioned for a windfall of research dollars and collaborative projects in what officials say is a burgeoning industry soon to be worth billions of dollars a year. The institutions also say the designation could help them lure businesses to their regions, creating thousands of jobs.

Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, the University of Alaska system, and Virginia Tech were among the six test-site operators named by the FAA on Monday. They will function as research hubs—drawing players from government, academe, and private industry—as the agency works to integrate unmanned aircraft, sometimes referred to as drones, into U.S. airspace by 2015. The University of Alaska and Virginia Tech will work with partners in more than one state. The timeline for integration was set by Congress in 2012.

Jon Greene, an associate director at Virginia Tech's Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, said that while the FAA designation itself did not come with a check, it will be an "enabler" for other research projects that he and his colleagues have planned.

"This will give us a leg up toward some additional federal funding," Mr. Greene said. "To date, federal funding has been the driver in the development of unmanned aircraft, principally through the Department of Defense."

Gregory Walker, founder and director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said multiple universities and dozens of private companies and state agencies had roles in securing the designation. It buttresses the university's international profile as a veteran in the field, he said, and opens the door to a cornucopia of studies.

However, Mr. Walker said, "you've got to find somebody to pay for the research." He pointed to oil companies as one example of a potential sponsor: "We can design experiments that would be attractive for somebody to pay for, while at the same time answering the questions the FAA needs answered. That is ultimately what it does for us."

Many Uses

In a statement, the FAA said it had received 25 proposals, from 24 states, for the test-site designation. In addition to the three universities, the other lead designees are Griffiss International Airport, in Rome, N.Y.; the North Dakota Department of Commerce; and the State of Nevada. The research will run until 2017.

Potential uses for drones are many. Public safety and agriculture are cited as two of the most promising sectors. Amazon's chief executive, Jeff Bezos, made a splash last month when he announced that his company was testing delivering packages by drone.

Still, many questions loom. The FAA's research priorities include how to certify aircraft and control stations, how to avoid collisions, and how to protect privacy and civil liberties.

Drones are projected to inject $13.6-billion into the domestic economy during the first three years of their integration into the nation's airspace, according to a study published last year by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The figure increases to $82.1-billion by 2025, creating more than 100,000 new jobs.

Officials at Virginia Tech, who will work with partners at Rutgers University and the University of Maryland to operate their test site, recognized in the designation a major economic-development opportunity for the mid-Atlantic region, Mr. Greene said. Much of the early work on unmanned-aircraft systems was done by small companies, and more will spring up around the designated sites.

"There are going to be states in which they create an environment where that industry can flourish, and those state are going to benefit more than others," Mr. Greene said. "We see the opportunity to bring research development, and test and evaluation, and perhaps even some manufacturing jobs, to Virginia, New Jersey, and Maryland."

Officials at Corpus Christi, in partnership with several other Texas institutions, had already set a one-year goal of writing $25-million worth of proposals for research on drones, said Luis A. Cifuentes, the university's vice president for research, commercialization, and outreach. The hope is to secure $5-million annually.

The FAA designation is a game changer for the young research university, Mr. Cifuentes said. The work will focus on systems safety and airworthiness.

"You can imagine that there will be a lot of research projects surrounding those topics," he said. "That puts us in the catbird seat for getting funding to do that kind of work. We are very excited about the potential to be competitive for the moneys that are going to be out there and have to be out there in order to make this happen."