Drone corridor taking shape in Rome
During Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s last visit to the Mohawk Valley, he announced that NASA is pairing with the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance.
While the announcement was well-received by the crowd gathered at Griffiss International Airport on Sept. 28, it may have been a tad late: NASA already has been working with NUAIR for about two years.
That partnership is supporting the launch of the 50-mile Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) Corridor from Rome to Syracuse and creation of National Unmanned Aerial System Standardized Testing and Recording (NUSTAR).
Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente said the continued partnership is going to bring further drone development to the area.
“I think it goes back to what we’re developing there,” Picente said. “I think what we’re going to see more of in 2018 is more companies, more development and some larger announcements that will have more significance in terms of job creation, but also in terms of the technology.”
The first phase of the Unmanned Traffic Management Corridor opened up at the end of September. That corridor is lined with sensors placed in the ground that then speak to a computer system in the control room at the UAS facility at Griffiss — basically air traffic control for drones.
The information transmitted to the control room allows the person flying the drone to “see” what is around it and not have to have eyes on the actual aircraft in order to fly safely.
The goal is to eventually be able to integrate commercial drone traffic into the U.S. airspace.
But for now, Oneida County Aviation Commissioner Russell Stark said the corridor has to be tested and NASA and NUAIR have to prove to the Federal Aviation Administration that the drones can truly be flown beyond visual line of sight.
The whole corridor does not need to be done for tests to start on it, he added.
“We have to build a safety case with the FAA,” Stark said. “The way that works is, we’ll have to fly a certain number of times that show yes, we’ve flown this course, say hypothetically, 100 times, our radar systems that we have installed for this UTM project was able to spot them, track them, and we knew where they were 100 percent of the time. The next step of that is we take the visual observer away and fly truly beyond a visual line of sight from the test site.”
Lawrence Brinker, interim president and CEO of NUAIR, said now that part of the corridor is open, they have to issue a request for qualifications, then the buildout on phase two and finishing the corridor can begin.
He said the partnership with NASA helps them move in the right direction.
“NASA has been the leading idea agency in unmanned air systems for a long time — unmanned traffic management was NASA’s idea to begin with,” he said. “The space act agreements allow us to exchange information with NASA and that’s all information they have based on historical work on the subject matter. So they serve as collaborators with us and also consultants on the steps that we’re going to take to make sure that what we’re going to do is consistent with what their ideas are and what will ultimately have to be approved by NASA and the FAA.”
NUAIR is an alliance of more than 40 private and public entities and academic institutions from across New York and Massachusetts that partnered to promote Griffiss as an ideal location to conduct testing and research to allow for the safe integration of unmanned vehicles and systems into the national airspace. The Griffiss location was named one of several FAA test sites in the nation in 2013 along with locations in New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Alaska, Virginia and North Dakota.
Picente and Stark both said the possibilities the drone industry opens up locally are endless.
“We could have a significant type of distribution center for drones here,” Picente said. “That can be a reality. And I wouldn’t have thought that a couple years ago, but more and more when you see the demonstrations of what’s being developed … I think people are going to see what this investment is all about.”