Utah Valley University Bidding to Become UAS Test Facility

Unmanned aerial systems(UAS), unmanned aerial vehicles(UAV), remotely piloted aircraft(RPA), drones…whatever you want to call them, I’ll go with RPAs, are one of the biggest topics of discussion in aviation these days.  Whether you like them or not, they are rapidly becoming more common all over the country, and in ways that we may not have previously considered.

I’ve recently posted about the Boeing Phantom Eye that is designed to provide long periods of surveillance, likely for military and civilian use.  There are the well documented Predators and Reapers that can provide surveillance as well as weapons employment, which was the topic of Rand Paul’s filibuster last week, wasting half a day of work for Congress.  These three are only an incredibly small sampling of all the RPA’s out there, and the list just continues to grow.

With the rapid growth of RPAs it is becoming increasingly important for the FAA to create rules and regulations to govern their use, and how they will fit into the National Airspace System (NAS).  Some would say it is as simple as making them all fly under instrument flight rules, but with a system that relies heavily on a “see and avoid” mindset, it really can’t be that simple.  Though it doesn’t need to be super difficult either.

Whatever the FAA decides to do with regulation, they are asking institutions to put in bids to become one of six sites across the nation that will conduct tests to aid in the development of future regulations as RPAs get integrated into the NAS.  From what I have read recently, many of the groups applying are based around universities, which makes a whole lot of sense.  Today I read about one such university that I think would be a perfect fit.

Utah Valley University(UVU) is leading an alliance of universities, and private companies that are involved in research and development of RPAs.  The name of their alliance is the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance or MWUSA.  UVU supports a well-respected aviation program, that is rapidly growing along with the university.

With their campus in Provo, Utah, they are in a great position to conduct all kinds of different research into RPA’s and how they will interact with other aircraft in the NAS.  Provo itself has only a small airport which will be good when it comes to basic testing of atc and other radio communications.

However, Provo is only a short distance from Salt Lake International Airport which is a relatively busy airport, being one of Delta’s larger hubs.  This would allow researchers to interact with relatively busy airspace, while not interfering with the major operations that would be going on at LAX, O’Hare, or Atlanta.  Ultimately, the major hubs will have to be included, but initially I would think researchers would rather have busy, but not overwhelming airports to conduct their research.

The other great feature that UVU has at their fingertips is the geography of the State of Utah.  There are not many places that have mountains climbing up to over 10,000 feet(Wasatch Mountains) within 20-30 miles of some of the flattest ground in the world(Bonneville Salt Flats).  As an Air Force aviator, terrain is something that we talk about on every single flight, so I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be a major factor in understanding how RPAs will interact with the current system.

The FAA isn’t planning on naming the sites until later this summer, but whoever gets the nod will certainly have their work cut out for them.  The FAA is under a mandate from Congress to integrate RPAs into the NAS by 2018.  5 years may seem like a long time, but with as fast as technology is changing, and as slow as government agencies generally work, I think they will need all of the time they can get.