Mojave Airport Eyes Possible UAV Test Site Designation

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

The Mojave Air and Space Port is considering whether to apply to become one of six sites designated to test unmanned aerial vehicles by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Mojave General Manager Stu Witt said on Tuesday that officials are weighing their options and will not make any decisions about whether to apply until they see a request for proposal (RFP) from the FAA. Last week, the agency has put the selection process on hold citing safety concerns and privacy issues.

In the meantime, the airport has hired Nafziger Consulting of Tehachapi to help evaluate the possibility of flying UAVs from Mojave, Witt said. The contract is worth up to $25,000 depending upon the amount of work performed.

Witt said he has been in consultation with his counterparts at Edwards Air Force Base, the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, and other area airports on the matter. Mojave’s flight and test operations require close coordination with these entities.

The six designated areas would become major hubs for the building, testing and maintenance of UAVs, which is a fast-growing aviation segment with a broad range of military and civilian uses. It would be a potentially lucrative field for Mojave to enter, if UAV testing can be safely integrated into the spaceport’s existing civilian aviation and rocket test flight operations.

The FAA was to have issued a RFP in July and selected the six sites next month. However, the agency has delayed the selection process indefinitely.

In a letter received late last week by the members of the Unmanned Systems Congressional Caucus, acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta singled out the need to first address privacy concerns that come with increasing the use of drones in the nation’s airspace….

The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center has actively petitioned the FAA on drone surveillance concerns.

Ever-evolving UAV technology is designed to be invasive to privacy and is more efficient than manned aircraft because drones fly longer and closer to the earth, said Amie Stepanovich, an EPIC lawyer.

If privacy isn’t protected now, UAV surveillance will rise, she said.

“What drones are capable of today is entirely different even than a year ago,” she said.

FAA officials have given no timetable for releasing an RFP.