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FAA urged to keep UAV timetable for test sites

Congress, concerned about a delay that has already occurred, is pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to stay on schedule for designating six test sites in December that will allow the operation of remotely piloted aircraft in airspace now used by manned planes, to determine how the flying can be safely integrated.

Reps. Steve Austria and Mike Turner, both Republicans from the Dayton area, were among nine House members who signed the letter sent on Wednesday to the FAA’s interim administrator, Michael Huerta.

The legislators noted that the FAA’s own timetable for responding to a law Congress passed to mandate the airspace integration of manned and unmanned aircraft had called for the agency to issue a request for proposals in July for management of the test sites. It is early August and congressional staff have heard from contacts within the FAA that no such request for proposals is imminent, leading legislators to worry that there could be further delays and the FAA won’t be ready to decide the locations of the test sites in December, Austria said Thursday.

“We want assurance that they will stick to that timetable,” said Austria, R-Beavercreek, who is a member of the Unmanned Systems Congressional Caucus. The lawmakers are monitoring whether the FAA complies with requirements of legislation that requires the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into manned airspace. Under the schedule, the first of the six test sites would begin operating in January 2013.

“The agency is working to complete the proposal process for the six test sites as required by the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act,” the FAA, without elaborating, said in a written response to the Dayton Daily News.

At least 30 states are considered likely competitors for the test sites, which could boost job creation by attracting more companies with a stake in research and development of UAVs and the sensor packages they carry. Beyond military uses, the UAVs are in demand for civilian markets including law enforcement, homeland security, emergency response and agriculture.

The Dayton Development Coalition and Ohio officials are ready to respond whenever the FAA issues its request for proposals, said Joe Zeis, the coalition’s executive vice president.

The Dayton region is home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, UAV and sensors research and development, a UAV mission at Springfield’s Ohio Air National Guard base, and aerospace, propulsion and advanced manufacturing expertise, along with courses designed to train UAV pilots. Regional leaders have declined to project how many jobs could result if an FAA-designated test site were nearby, but have said it would be a major boost for the local industry.