April 9, 2013

'Next big thing in the aerospace industry'

Privacy issues notwithstanding, states are fiercely vying to become federally designated testing sites.

By RICHARD SIMON/Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - Although the prospect of drones flying over U.S. cities is generating cries of spies in the skies, groups from California to Florida are fiercely competing to become one of six federally designated sites for testing how the remotely piloted aircraft can safely be incorporated into the nation's airspace.

click image to enlarge

Fifty teams from 39 states have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration to be among the six sites that would test drones such as this NASA Global Hawk robotic jet sitting in a hangar at Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The Associated Press

Locking horns: An eye in the sky on rhino poachers

GAUHATI, India - Wildlife authorities used drones on Monday for aerial surveillance of a sprawling natural game park in northeastern India to protect the one-horned rhinoceros from armed poachers.

Security officers conducted flights of the unmanned aircraft over the Kaziranga National Park.

The drones will be flown at regular intervals to prevent rampant poaching in the park located in the remote Indian state of Assam.

The drones are equipped with cameras and will be monitored by security guards, who find it difficult to guard the whole 480-square kilometer (185-square mile) reserve.

"Regular operations of the unmanned aerial vehicles will begin once we get the nod of the Indian defense ministry," said Rokybul Hussain, the state's forest and environment minister.

The drones will also be useful during the annual monsoon season when large parts of the Kaziranga reserve are inundated by floods from the mighty Brahmaputra River and three other rivers that flow through the game park, park officials said.

Hussain said the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's equivalent of the FBI, will soon begin investigations into the steep rise in rhino poaching this year.

Poachers armed with automatic rifles killed 22 rhinos last year, but have killed 16 rhinos already this year.

Rhino horn is in great demand in China and Southeast Asia where it is believed to have medicinal properties.

A rhino census conducted in Kaziranga reserve two weeks ago put their number at 2,329, up from 2,290 in 2012.

In recent weeks, wildlife authorities in Assam have deployed 300 armed guards to protect the rhinos in Kaziranga but they have been no match for organized gangs of poachers who have been managing to strike at the rhinos with increasing regularity.

"What worries us is the use of automatic weapons like Kalashnikovs by the poachers," said Assam police chief Jayanta Narayan Choudhury.

- The Associated Press


North Dakota boasts of its "minimal air traffic congestion." North Carolina, whose license plates read "First in Flight," cites its aviation history. California pitches its diverse geography: desert, mountains and ocean.

Technically, the designation itself offers no money, but 50 groups in 37 states have entered the Federal Aviation Administration competition. States see the designation as an opportunity to generate jobs from a burgeoning industry.

"Clearly, we wouldn't be interested unless we thought there was money," said Bob Knauff, a retired general leading a New York-Massachusetts bid.

And so the pitches keep coming. Oklahoma notes its experience in testing drones for the military. Arizona boasts of its nearly year-round "perfect flying weather." Florida, on the other hand, sees its sometimes severe weather as a plus for testing drones in all kinds of conditions.

And the leader of a joint effort by Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon says, "We think we bring something to the table that is going to be hard to match," citing the diversity of environments and "massive amounts" of "relatively unpopulated airspace," especially up in the Last Frontier.

Not everyone, however, is so enthusiastic.

Even as the competition rages, lawmakers from city halls to Congress are writing legislation to restrict drone flights. The FAA also is getting an earful from a public anxious about drones invading their privacy.

"This is a highly visible step toward a Big Brother-like state," a Wisconsin resident told the FAA.

Those vying for test sites say that privacy concerns should be addressed separately from the testing. But they are aware of the concerns.

North Carolina has proposed testing in airspace over crops. "Corn doesn't care" about drones flying overhead, said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University. Still, the FAA has directed that existing privacy laws be obeyed during testing.

Those bidding for test sites -- in many cases alliances of economic development groups, universities and aerospace companies -- believe that if they land a test site, drone manufacturers will follow.

Aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. estimated that worldwide drone spending will almost double over the next decade to $11.4 billion. Thousands of drones are expected to be deployed over the U.S. within the next five years for all sorts of chores, including inspecting pipelines, scouting film locations, searching for lost hikers, helping police track criminal suspects.

"Simply put, unmanned aircraft systems are the next big thing in the aerospace industry," California Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, chairman of the California Assembly Select Committee on Aerospace, said.

Florida, which is investing $1.4 million in its pitch, sees drones as a way to recover from the end of the space shuttle program. Nevada officials have said they see an opportunity to become the "Silicon Valley of unmanned aerial systems."

The FAA, which will select the six test sites by the end of the year, was directed by Congress to draw up rules by 2015 for drone flights in U.S. airspace. Among those pushing for the legislation was the 49-member Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, founded by Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., who has cited the potential for jobs and improvements to public safety and emergency response times from integrating drones into the nation's airspace.

Tests initially are expected to focus on small drones, typically 50 pounds or less, flying at altitudes of up to 5,000 to 10,000 feet, but eventually could include bigger drones like the ones used in combat -- but unarmed.

Some states hoping to be named test sites have combined forces, seeing strength in numbers. Virginia and New Jersey are working together.

Although states aren't saying much publicly about their bids for fear of helping their competitors, they are looking for any edge they can get.

North Dakota noted that one of its universities was the first to offer a bachelor's degree in "unmanned aircraft systems operations." The governor has allocated $1 million for the state's bid and pledged an additional $4 million to support the testing if North Dakota is selected.

Ohio noted that it was home to development of the "world's first unmanned aerial system," a sort of flying bomb known as an "aerial torpedo" developed in 1918.


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