Arizona Technology & Innovation: Drone Testing

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President Barack Obama recently signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the establishment of six testing sites for drones to be used in commercial applications and by the government for other than military use. Arizona is competing to be one of those test sites. Retired Gen. John Regni, a technical adviser with the Arizona Commerce Authority, will discuss the effort.

Ted Simons: In our continuing coverage of Arizona technology and innovation issues we look at the possibility of Arizona becoming one of six federal testing sites for unmanned aircraft. Authorization for the six sites was included as part of national defense authorization act signed by President Obama. The government is looking into an expanded role for these so-called drones including commercial use. Here to talk about Arizona's efforts to be a testing site is retired Air Force lieutenant general John Regni, a technical advisor with the Arizona commerce authority. Thanks for joining us.

John Regni: My pleasure.

Ted Simons: We're talking -- I know some folks don't want to use the word drone, but unmanned aircraft, this is high-tech stuff here.

John Regni: It is. In the airs Air Force we don't use the term unmanned. We call them remotely piloted vehicles. When you peel the onion back it takes about 800 man-hours of work to generate one hour of flight.

Ted Simons: So these would be tested in civil air space? Is that what the government is looking for? How come?

John Regni: What the Congress has directed the FAA to do is to determine how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft in the same air space. Also to develop all the certifications and procedures.

Ted Simons: What would be some of the challenges there?

John Regni: Well, the safety is the most important piece, obviously, to make sure that commercial aircraft that you and I fly on are going to safely be able to operate around unmanned systems.

Ted Simons: Some would not only be I guess in urban environments and airports but helping with forest fires and other uses, correct?

John Regni: Absolutely. For example last week we lost one of the aircraft putting fire retardant down, we lost two pilots on that aircraft. This is a forest fire abatement. When you can send a a plane without a pilot into a dangerous situation that's always a benefit.

Ted Simons: What is the government looking for in terms of a test site.

John Regni: The FAA has been charged to develop six. They have to have climb attic and geographic diversity. We feel Arizona is in the best position to satisfy many of the requirements of the FAA. But the test site will actually have flights of unmanned aircraft and are looking for developing all the safe procedures for sense and avoid, you don't have a pilot with eyes in the cockpit you have to have electronic systems to deal with emergency situations, if there was a lost communications link and things like that. Then the FAA will collect the data from all of the test ranges and then start to very smartly develop the procedures and protocols for safe flight. They have several years to pull this together as the country needs to move forward.

Ted Simons: How is Arizona presenting itself as far as getting through this particular -- it would seem with the military installations we have you mentioned the climate, topography, which I want to get back to. Let's talk about that right now. Why is Arizona such a hot bed for aviation? We understand the climate part, but it seems like the topography is a factor as well.

John Regni: It really goes back to the Gadston purchase and how the United States is using that piece of land. We're a national asset with test and training ranges in the United States. It's no accident that we have the Luke Air Force bases and the marine corps in Yuma, around these ranges. Because they provide the nation an asset. They can't be replicated anywhere else. What the FAA doesn't have in this direction from Congress are appropriations. They have a direction, an authorization to do it but no money to do it. So part of the laws talk about leveraging the Department of Defense and NASA's assets and experiences and ranges. Arizona is the nation's leader in range management, so we already distinguish ourselves there. We also are a national leader in the aviation community, in defense contracting world and aerospace. Of course we have an academic and research backbone. We're now forming a research consortium of Arizona State University of Arizona, Embry Riddle, Arizona laboratories for security and defense systems with its top secret clearances. All that together will be focused on assisting the FAA meet its requirements in the unmanned systems. Arizona has a ton to offer here.

Ted Simons: Fort Huachuca, isn't that a testing site already to a certain degree?

John Regni: The largest testing site we have is Yuma testing grounds. It doesn't get any better than that. They are testing unmanned flights today. So if and when Arizona becomes a site we can turn that on right away. Fort Huachuca, on the other hand, has been training unmanned aircraft operators since 1996. They have every day experience since '96 of flying manned and unmanned systems. They have graduated 10,000 operators already and they have banded with Cochise College and defense contractors to do that properly. If you look at the testing there in Yuma, the training we have in and around Fort Huachuca, that's already a great foundation.

Ted Simons: Talk about the economic impact of being awarded one of these six national sites.

John Regni: By the way, 35 states want one of the six sites. Many are motivated by the potential of economic growth, so forth. Since will are -- there are no appropriations, just having a site is not going to generate a lot of income and jobs. What will happen, though, the FAA will provide those six test sites, a certification of authorization to fly unmanned flights. That will allow us to have -- that will be a magnet for industry and the defense and civilian aviation world to put all of their research, development, prototype development, do the field testing, operational testing, and to be very efficient in their operations. You're going to see defense and aerospace and civil aviation migrate in and around the range.

Ted Simons: End of the year we should get a decision?

John Regni: The FAA is looking at 20th of July they will put the RFP on the street with 60 days to respond. Arizona will represent ourselves as a state. Between Thanksgiving and the end of the year the FAA will decide who the six are.

Ted Simons: Great information. Thanks for joining us.

John Regni: Arizona is a great place and we're going to win this.

Ted Simons: Sounds good.

Ted Simons: Thursday on "Arizona Horizon," the city of Peoria partners with a nonprofit to invest in new and early stage medical device companies. Learn more about this venture philanthropy approach, Thursday on "Arizona Horizon."

Ted Simons: That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thanks so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Retired Gen. John Regni:Technical Adviser, Arizona Commerce Authority;

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