Congressman Kevin McCarthy rolled out an invitation to Gov. Jerry Brown to tour Inyokern Airport and support the Cal UAS Portal team in its bid for an unmanned systems test site designation from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We are in the same boat that we have been for the last several months,” Shibley said by phone. “I think we’re always going to have some challenges.”
Politics and competition for a test site designation weigh in on “the process,” something that Shibley said should be addressed.
“One of the goals is to work with legislators on laws affecting unmanned systems,” Shibley said.
With California considering pieces of legislation both supporting the UAS initiative and “seeking to address privacy concerns or prevent abuse by law enforcement,” and other states already having implemented their own, Shibley said lawmakers need to think broadly.
“We should make laws technology-agnostic instead if technology-specific,” Shibley said.
She added that past technological advances have faced similar dangers of being “bogged down by laws,” referring to the automobile when it first became commonplace in the early 1900s. Laws in that era were implemented to reduce the risk of accidents or prevent more widespread use before businesses stepped in to lobby for their adoption.
Shibley said that history may repeat itself.
“Business is what is going to drive unmanned systems,” Shibley said. “There are so many other things that can be done with unmanned systems beyond law enforcement.”
Economic impact could be huge, according to an economic impact report released by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUSVI). AUSVIS projects that the industry will generate more than $82.1 billion and create 103,776 jobs between 2015 and 2025 if the FAA hits its 2015 deadline.
Once the dusts settles with the selection of the six test sites, expected by the end of this year, Shibley said the next challenge emerges.
“The biggest challenges to come include how the test sites will work together, along with our industry partners,” Shibley said.
Cal UAS Portal has already secured several team members and partners among universities, airports like Mojave Air and Space Port, and in the commercial world as far south as San Diego.
Investors have already promised commitments to set up shop or pour resources into Inyokern Airport.
Shibley said the goal is to continue building relationships, which she has done recently by attending the AUVSI conference in Washington, D.C.
Shibley said the forum was well attended by people from across the country, and connections are being made right and left.
“This is a very positive forum,” Shibley said. “Anyone that has anything to do with the industry is here.”
With the announcement of a formal timeline and additional insight into what information the proposals should include, the China Lake Alliance is pressing forward on its effort to have Inyokern Airport designated as one of six national test sites for unmanned aerial vehicles. Last December Congress passed legislation issuing a directive to the Federal Aviation Administration to “develop a plan to accelerate the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace.”
For the first several months after the announcement, virtually no information was released. However, with the anticipation of a highly competitive (and politically charged) process, Alliance members began laying the groundwork for the Inyokern proposal.
Eileen Shibley, who led the Unmanned Systems Division at China Lake before her retirement and played a pivotal role in the development of its UAV capabilities, is leading the effort to promote Inyokern Airport in the site-selection process. She told the News Review that the FAA designated a Request for Comment period through May 8. The Request for Proposals will be officially released July 20, and entities have 60 days to respond. The FAA then has until mid-December to name its selections.
Shibley said that based on the inquiries not public “inquiries], the FAA also held two webinars so that organizations – which represented facilities, legal firms, lobbyists and more – could ask questions prior to the closure of the Request for Comment period.” [but there was no consideration or public input] The webinars did “unearth a few pieces of valuable information,” said Shibley. “The first was that they kept hammering on the fact that the whole purpose of this is for research and development. They are looking for places that UAV manufacturers can “test their systems.” And each of those sites must have an ability to understand and work with the military, which is where UAVs are flying now.”
“And that’s exactly what we do here. We think Inyokern Airport is the perfect bridge to taking our local mission of military integration and expanding it into the commercial realm.” Because the FAA will be consulting with the Department of Defense and NASA before making the final site determination, China Lake officials are not involved in the process. But China Lake Alliance has brought on partners in the effort that include the IWV Airport Board, which recently passed a resolution in favor of the effort, and the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce, which has touted the potential for local industrial growth and job development.
The alliance is now exploring fund-raising options to bring UAV manufacturers to Ridgecrest to see the airport facilities.
“What better way to promote this site than to let people see for themselves how perfectly situated we are?” said Shibley, who said she was blown away by the recent tour given by Airport Board Director Mark Backus. “I had no idea what they already had available out there,” she said. With a newly renovated state-of-the-art terminal, an on-site fire station, concrete pads for launching and landing, three runways to facilitate any wind condition and access to Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake towers, “this is a very friendly place to do business.” Alliance Director Mick Gleason said that a site designation for Inyokern would be mutually beneficial to the valley and the FAA.
“In order to capitalize on this area of burgeoning growth, we need to be out in front developing a reputation as a center of excellence in systems integration for unmanned systems,” said Gleason. “We have the intellectual capital and expertise, but we need to leverage that to develop and recruit industry to our area. If we are successful, that directly equates to creation of jobs.”
He also pointed to the “distinct advantages” of Inyokern as a site. “We are sitting directly under 20,000 square miles of unencumbered airspace, we have 1.1 million acres of unencroached land ranges and we have a culture steeped in systems integration – which is exactly what they are going to be looking for.” With an anticipated 40 proposals for the six sites, Gleason acknowledged an uphill battle. “But it is a hill worth climbing.”
And from the political perspective, we have some advantages. “We have the chair of the House Armed Services Committee right down the street,” he said, referring to Rep. Buck McKeon, who visited China Lake and addressed the alliance last fall. “We have Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy as an “avid supporter of the military,” and we have our wonderful state representatives who are also engaged on this issue. These are people who care about national defense AND jobs in the Indian Wells Valley.”
Shibley added that the remoteness of the IWV, in this case, could also be an advantage. “This is one of those things where you don’t want to be in the thick of a dense population. On top of that, we’ve got different climates and diverse terrain that will give a variety of test conditions. And we have room to grow. People talk about how the big cities have all the power and influence, but they don’t have what we have,” said Shibley.
“For years this was the ‘Secret City’ – a closely guarded secret. But I think the time has come where the best way we can support the Navy’s mission is to attract the kind of industry that enhances what they are already doing here.”
Eileen Shibley CalUAS
- Congressmembers sign letter of support for Cal UAS, San Diego, USA (thedronenews.com)
- States Vie for Test Sites As FAA Prepares U.S. Airspace For Thousands of Drones (backcountryvoices.wordpress.com)
- Federal Aviation Administration Grants Special Airworthiness Certificate For Nighthawk IV Micro Unmanned Air System (suasnews.com)
- Drone Tests Over East County? New Citizens Group Opposes Plan, But Local Representatives Support (thedronenews.com)
- Which States Are Poised to Cash In on the Drone Boom? (motherboard.vice.com)
- An Act to Relating to Unmanned Aircraft Systems (backcountryvoices.wordpress.com)
- USDA state director given tour, breakdown of Cal UAS Portal (suasnews.com)
- Unmanned aircraft market could boom in transition to civilian use (suasnews.com)
- Why do we need drones in South Texas? (unclewilliejoe.wordpress.com)