Numerous states are vying to host the sites, which will demonstrate how unmanned aircraft can fly in the National Airspace System safely.
The Federal Aviation Administration expects to kick off the competition for six unmanned aircraft test sites by the end of this month, Jim Williams, director of the agency's UAS Integration Office, said at AUVSI's Unmanned Systems Program Review 2013.
"When will the test site selection begin? I'm sure all of you are asking that," he said in his keynote presentation at Air Day. "And the answer is we're getting closer every day, very close as a matter of fact. My office is working diligently to release the screening information request, and we are committed to releasing it before the end of this month."
Numerous states are vying to host the sites, which will demonstrate how unmanned aircraft can fly in the National Airspace System safely. They will include various technical safety concerns and demonstrate sense-and-avoid solutions, he said.
They will also address privacy issues, driven by public and legislative interest in the issue.
"Now, why is the FAA addressing privacy, you might ask? The protection of public privacy is a concern for all of our stakeholders. Because the 2012 bill that charged the FAA with safe integration of UAS in the NAS, the issue of protecting people's privacy has been raised in various forms," he said.
"As the government agency charged with introducing UAS into the airspace, it made sense that we take advantage of the test site program to tee up the issue so we can understand it better," he said.
However, he noted that the issue of privacy protection won't be fully addressed by the test site program, "so I challenge AUVSI and all of you to get serious about what your industry standards should be to ensure privacy protection."
Williams also said the proposed rule for small unmanned aircraft is expected to be released by the end of this year.
"I know that the rulemaking process is slow, and no one is more frustrated by that than me," Williams said. "We all get impatient to implement these revolutionary designs."
Even before that, flights of small aircraft in the Arctic are expected to begin this summer. The defined area is huge, stretching from the Bering Sea to the Aleutians and nearly to the North Pole. Within that area, the small UAS can fly beyond line of sight and up to 2,000 feet.
The Congressional View
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and cofounder of the House Unmanned Systems Caucus, addressed the attendees via a prerecorded video and said this year will be a critical one for moving unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System.
"The 47 bipartisan members of this caucus will continue to work the appropriate federal agencies to ensure an efficient and constitutional integration process," he said.
"Privacy will be a part of the debate in 2013," he added, noting that AUVSI and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have released UAS operator guidelines that call for protecting privacy.
"We must continue to address these concerns but at the same time ensure the FAA is able to adhere to its mandated timelines," McKeon said. "Concurrently, appropriate federal agencies need to draft and implement viable privacy policies for their specific areas of responsibility."
McKeon urged the audience to continue advocating for unmanned systems at the local, state and federal levels.
"The Unmanned Systems Caucus will continue its efforts on educating and informing members of Congress, federal agencies and the public on the enormous potential impact that unmanned systems will have for them," he said.