Airport, partners vie to be unmanned aircraft site

Jun. 16th, 2012
Joyce Lobeck

As the next epoch of air travel in pilotless craft gains momentum, two pieces of federal legislation have mandated six test ranges to integrate unmanned aircraft systems safely into the national airspace system. And the Yuma County Airport Authority believes this region would be perfect. To back up that belief, the governing body for the Yuma International Airport has put together a 100-page briefing detailing why this area should be considered by the Federal Aviation Administration for one of the sites. Currently, unmanned aircraft can be flown only in restricted airspace. The UAS test sites would have two customers: the FAA to gather data on how to integrate unmanned aircraft into national airspace and aircraft developers who will have their own test requirements. The military already is increasingly using unmanned aircraft. The ultimate goal is to develop them for commercial use as well, perhaps by such users as the Forest Service, agriculture and emergency services. Anchored by the airport’s Defense Contractors Complex (DCC), the Yuma International Airport and its partners already have the facilities, the technology, the security, the experience, the ranges and the successful business model in place to meet FAA’s criteria for a UAS test site, said Craig Williams, airport director. Partners include the airport, Yuma Proving Ground, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Rolle Field, Northern Arizona University-Yuma and Greater Yuma Economic Development Corp. Fort Huachuca, a leader in UAS training, has also been added to the proposal the Airport Authority is developing to present to the FAA. Together, the airport, YPG and MCAS have eight airfields and 10 runways that can be used for UAS testing in various settings and risk environments, depending on the needs of the developer, Williams said. The potential UAS sites here include six ranges at YPG, which already has the established technology to monitor and command the testing as well as a history of successful unmanned aircraft testing over the last several years. In addition, the Barry M. Goldwater Aerial Gunnery Range offers a large restricted airspace, and the Airport Authority recently completed a significant improvement project at Rolle Field. Williams noted that the Airport Authority has been committed to improving the airport to meet the evolving needs of the community and nation’s defense industry, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — with the first aircraft scheduled to arrive at MCAS this fall. Since 2007, more than $20 million has been invested in a variety of projects at the airport. They include: • $2.5 million for the FedEx ramp • $3.5 million for Taxiway F • $3 million for the DCC ramp • $2.2 million for the hangar leased by NASA for a base for its Orion space capsule parachute system testing • $2 million for the new FedEx building • $10 million for the Customs and Border Protection Center • $5 for the Aviation Industrial Center at the DCC for which construction will start by fall • $10 million for improvements to the DCC apron is pending “All the required facilities are in place here,” Williams said. “We’re ahead of the curve.” That’s important, he noted, as the FAA won’t be funding any infrastructure improvements to the selected sites. Small aircraft drones have played a role in the military since World War II. In recent years, a number of unmanned aircraft have undergone testing at YPG from the Boeing A160 Hummingbird to the Northrop-Grumman Fire Scout, Shadow and Hunter. YPG’s restricted airspace covers miles of land far from any populated area ideal for testing unmanned aircraft in the early stages of development. And it has the most advanced testing technology and experience in the world. Meanwhile, MCAS, the largest Marine aviation base in the U.S., controls the airspace in a wide area around Yuma, air traffic control other sites would have to develop, Williams said. “We have the technical expertise and logistical support to help customers achieve their objectives,” he said. “I’m guessing the selection (of the test sites) will be made by December. On Jan. 1, we could be collecting data because we’re ready.”

Joyce  Lobeck
Sun Staff Writer
Yuma Sun
Jun. 16th, 2012