Will Mojave Become an UAS Research and Test Site?

In a move that could have a major impact on the Mojave Air and Space Port, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has solicited proposals from interested parties for the establishment of six unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research and test sites around the country.

Mojave spaceport officials have said they are seriously considering submitting a proposal for this designation. They have also brought in a NASA Dryden executive, John W. Kelly, to serve a one-year executive internship. One of Kelly’s main focuses will be on the research potential for UAS activity.

The Mojave Air and Space Port Board of Directors met in closed session on Tuesday to discuss the FAA’s request for proposal (RFP) following its regularly scheduled open meeting.  The FAA issued the RFP late last week. Mojave spaceport CEO Stu Witt has previously stated that he wanted to see the RFP first before deciding whether to submit a proposal.

Being designated an UAS site would bring new companies and new jobs to the burgeoning spaceport in California’s High Desert. The facility currently includes a general aviation airport as well as companies building suborbital space vehicles. The airport has an industrial park and a rocket test area.

The FAA solicitation is open to  state and local governments, eligible universities and other public entities. The agency expects to make its selections later this year.

“Through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to establish this program to conduct critical research into how best to safely integrate UAS systems into the national airspace over the next several years and what certification and navigation requirements will need to be established,” the FAA said in a press release. “The expanded use of UAS represents a major next step in aviation innovation and will present economic opportunities both for the communities that are selected for this pilot program and for the aerospace industry in general.”

“Our focus is on maintaining and improving the safety and efficiency of the world’s largest aviation system,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies.”

“We expect to learn how unmanned aircraft systems operate in different environments and how they will impact air traffic operations. The test sites will also inform the agency as we develop standards for certifying unmanned aircraft and determine necessary air traffic requirements,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

According to the FAA’s press release:

The FAA technical evaluation of submitted proposals will include consideration of geographic diversity, climatic diversity, location of ground infrastructure and research needs, population density and air traffic density, as well as specific goals and objectives to be accomplished. The combined attributes across the test sites should provide the appropriate environment and opportunities to test UAS, although, each test site will not have to provide all attributes.

Along with the test site selection process, the FAA is sending a notice to the Federal Register asking the public to review the draft privacy language and provide comments. The FAA will consider all comments submitted as it develops the final privacy requirements. These requirements will be included in the agreements between the test sites and the FAA. The privacy proposal is available today on the FAA’s website – Federal Register Request for Comment (Copy Only) (PDF).

Under the FAA privacy proposal each test site operator must ensure that its privacy policies are informed by Fair Information Practice Principles, a widely accepted framework of privacy principles at the core of numerous federal and state privacy laws.

Each site operator and its team members will be required to operate in accordance with federal, state and other laws regarding the protection of an individual’s right to privacy. If the U.S. Department of Justice or a state’s law enforcement authority files criminal or civil charges over a potential violation of such laws, the FAA may take appropriate action, including suspending or modifying the agreement authorizing test site operations until the privacy proceedings are completed. If the proceedings demonstrate the operation was in violation of the law, the FAA may terminate the operating agreement.

The FAA issued the RFP on Feb. 14. Interesting parties have 80 days to respond.