Drones over upstate New York: A look at an FAA test site

by January 21, 2014 7:00PM ET

A region at the forefront of unmanned flight prepares to test commercial drones.

Topics:
U.S.
New York
Drones
Aerial view of Griffiss International Airport, Rome, N.Y.
Mohawk Valley EDGE
The Stream (Al Jazeera)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in late December that Griffiss International Airport, a former Air Force base in Rome, N.Y., would be one of six sites nationwide with authorization to test commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones. Years of coordinated effort came to fruition for the broad coalition of businesses, nonprofits, elected officials and academic institutions that pushed for the former air force base to be chosen. The competition had been fierce—with over 24 states vying to lead the way on what the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International predicts will be an $82 billion industry by 2025.

Mary Carol Chruscicki, the Executive Director of the Cyber NY Alliance, said the Griffiss process began with the founding of her organization in 2011, which sought to “create an ecosystem that would draw high-tech industry in the area.” Soon after the FAA was mandated by law to select test sites, the Cyber NY Alliance became a founding member of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR), a coalition tasked with winning the FAA’s selection that eventually grew to over 40 members.

We will always be enhancing our technologies and they will need to be tested in a methodical way before they're introduced into the airspace.

Mary Carol Chruscicki

Executive Director, Cyber NY Alliance

Chruscicki credited the application’s success in part to Griffiss’ close proximity to existing unmanned aviation testing and use. Two of the nearly 300 sites the FAA had previously approved for more limited testing are nearby, as are two active bases utilizing military drones. At the last minute, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts joined the Griffiss bid, which Chruscicki described as “icing on the cake.”

Griffiss itself is home to Rome Laboratory, one of the Air Force’s four “super laboratories” for research and development. A portion of the old base was also converted to a technology park that has attracted a variety of tech-related industries since its inception. Steve DiMeo, president of Mohawk Valley EDGE, an organization focused on economic development in the region, said that this research and business presence, along with the on-site county airport, will allow businesses interested in testing UAS.

“The infrastructure is in place for the most part,” DiMeo said, “though there are plans for some strategic investment, such as a test range, ground-based sensor technology, and office space.”

Now that NUAIR has won the bid, it will play a key role in helping the FAA meet its 2015 goal for starting integration of commercial UAS into US airspace. Larry Brinker, Executive Director and General Counsel for NUAIR, sees this as an ambitious timeline, saying that “2015 is feasible for small UAS, under 55 pounds, but full integration will take time.”

The biggest challenge to integration will be the development of “sense-and-avoid” systems for preventing collisions and crashes. While it remains to be seen how the six test sites will differ from each other in terms of priorities, Brinker said that Griffiss’ location in “one of the busiest aviation corridors in the world” is likely to give the site particular importance in the development of sense-and-avoid technologies necessary for drones to be a part of congested skies.

However, upstate New York won’t just be at the center of the technological challenges to drone integration. The selection of Griffiss thrusts the region into the center of the many contentious debates about the emerging technology, with many eyes watching to see how each issue plays out.

Drones and jobs

The FAA’s announcement was met with general enthusiasm by the greater Utica area, with local headlines and op-eds forecasting an economic boon. This optimism has been tempered with the acknowledgement that testing in the area is no guarantee of permanent jobs.

"Just being one of the six opens the door, but we still have to walk through," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said about the Griffiss announcement.

For Griffiss' supporters, economic development was part of the calculus from the beginning. Brinker said that NUAIR was “the brainchild of economic development groups in New York and Massachusetts.” He also added that making the case to companies to relocate to the area will be part of NUAIR’s function.

“It’s up to us to offer the opportunity and explain the benefits of relocating,” Brinker said.

Regional economic development leaders like DiMeo and Chruscicki think the greater Utica area has the right ingredients for the test site to create lasting jobs. Both point to the recently announced nanotechnology hub at State University of New York Institute of Technology in Utica and nanotech manufacturing site in neighboring Marcy as a complementary industry to unmanned aerial systems. A significant focus of this “nanotechnology corridor,” according to DiMeo, will be “the development of smaller and lighter processors that use less power,” technologies he thinks commercial drone developers will want to utilize.

Chruscicki said she is seeing signs that the presence of UAS testing will draw companies to the area looking to make components and technology for drones, such as cameras and sensor tech.

“I’m already getting calls from companies looking for opportunities to test and sell their products,” Chruscicki noted.

Chruscicki said that Amazon's push for commercial drones has helped perception efforts.
Amazon

Community leaders also pointed to the region’s large student population as an attractive draw for companies considering relocation. The test site will have established relationships with Rochester Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mohawk Valley Community College is also seeking to add to the potential labor pool by tailoring a training program for students in the maintenance and repair of UAS airframes.

“Having a tangible industry for students to pursue has given a lot of energy to the subject,” Brinker said.

It remains unclear what the role of test sites will be once the FAA’s goal of airspace integration is achieved. This has led to concern from some that job gains from the Griffiss test site will be short-lived.

When asked about these fears, Chruscicki dismissed them: "We will always be enhancing our technologies and they will need to be tested in a methodical way before they're introduced into the airspace.”

There is no shortage of ambition in the area for Griffiss’ role in the development of the unmanned flight industry. Sen. Schumer said he hopes upstate New York will become the “Silicon Valley of drones.”

A few days after the selection of the Griffiss site, the first company announced its plans to utilize it for testing. FlyTerra, a New York City firm, is developing drones for use in aerial imaging and terrain data gathering for agricultural and other purposes. In Chruscicki’s view, FlyTerra is only the beginning: “There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that we’re the premiere site.”

Military vs. commercial

The region, nonetheless, has a recent history of opposition to drones.

On April 29, 2013 police in Syracuse bused 30 fake-blood-covered activists to jail after they had taken part in a protest at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base. The base is home to the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air National Guard, a unit that flies armed Reaper drone missions over Afghanistan. The unit’s presence, just 40 miles from Griffiss, has made Syracuse a hotbed of anti-drone activism, with nearly 100 arrests at protests since 2011.

The contrast in public perception between Utica and Syracuse demonstrates how polarized the national conversation is on drones, and how perceptions are tied to a locality’s encounters with the technology.

Drone supporters in the region acknowledged that creating a distinction in the public’s perception between military and non-military uses of unmanned flight is central to their goals. For example, the Cyber NY Alliance was initially incorporated as The Central New York Defense Alliance, but rebranded before beginning the push for the FAA test site.

According to Chruscicki, a lot of the work in altering public perception has been done for them by Amazon. She said that the “60 Minutes” piece detailing Amazon’s vision for commercial drones is “the biggest conversation I’m hearing [in the area] about drones… any suspicion is being dwarfed by exciting new business.”

I’m quite worried that hype around domestic drones will normalize the use of drones in our skies.

Ed Kinane

Upstate Drone Action

Brinker, however, said that a lot of work still needs to be done for the commercial drone industry to shape public opinion.

“Most of the information up until now has been on military uses,” Brinker said, “having no commercial marketplace effects perception.” For this reason, Brinker described NUAIR's plans to “hit the trail” for an extensive public education campaign about the various uses for UAS technology.

Ed Kinane, a Syracuse activist and member of Upstate Drone Action, said he does not want to see the association of drones with their military application broken.

“I’m quite worried that hype around domestic drones will normalize the use of drones in our skies,” Kinane said, “the way ‘Atoms for Peace’ played a role in normalizing nuclear weapons.”

Kinane and Upstate Drone Action believe commercial drone testing will inform and enable the technology’s military, surveillance and law enforcement uses. “The benign applications pale in comparison to the harmful applications,” Kinane said. “Commercial and military development goes hand in hand.”

DiMeo also sees military and commercial development as hand in hand, but has the opposite takeaway. “A lot of things in our society emanate from military technology,” he said, adding that “this community is proud of its military heritage.”

Despite the anti-drone community’s opposition to the commercial testing, it does not seem as though local groups have any plans to engage in the sort of protest that Syracuse’s Hancock base has seen. One local activist who wished to remain anonymous said, “We’re focused on issues where we can make a difference.” 

Kinane echoed the sentiment that anti-drone activists face a big challenge.

“Goliath just got bigger,” Kinane said.

Privacy?

Privacy is likely to be one of the most heated areas of debate as commercial UAS become closer to a reality. The prospect of many small aircraft equipped with powerful cameras traveling through American airspace has privacy experts and ordinary citizens wary.

Across the country, reactions to the privacy implications of drones have been shaped by local and personal encounters. In Texas, a drone hobbyist captured images of a slaughterhouse polluting a creek with pig blood. The result was a state law outlawing drone photography by private citizens without express consent. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently took up the issue of UAS privacy policy in the Senate after protestors flew a drone up to the window of her home.

The FAA readily admits that dealing with privacy issues is a new area for their agency and one that they are not readily equipped to handle. The agency's roadmap to airspace integration states that “The FAA’s mission does not include developing or enforcing policies pertaining to privacy or civil liberties.”

Brinker thinks the FAA should keep it that way.

“Safety is what the FAA does,” he said. “There are sufficient federal agencies to deal with privacy concerns.”

Part of the function of test sites is to gauge public reaction and concern on issues like privacy in order to help inform the policy process before UAS are integrated. Since Griffiss is located near more populous areas and busier airspace than other test sites, it is likely to confront privacy issues during the testing process.

I really think that drone lobby is doing itself a disservice by flatly refusing to engage in a conversation about privacy regulations and statues.

Kade Crockford

ACLU, Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project

Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have criticized the test site approach, saying that the FAA's attempt to test the limits of the public's tolerance for drones could itself result in privacy and civil liberties violations. 

Testing at Griffiss, however, does not mean residents of the greater Utica area will soon have drones buzzing over their properties.

When asked what airspace would be most utilized, Brinker said, “Most of the testing will be done at the airspace locations that we designated… but they don't have to be. As R&D evolves other sites might be used such as testing an agricultural application on farm land.” He also noted that each UAS test will be required to submit its own privacy plan, which will differ based on where testing is taking place.

The FAA requires each test site to have an overarching privacy policy. NUAIR has not yet completed its privacy policy for the Griffiss site, but it outlined a general philosophy in a letter to the FAA in April (below). The letter makes clear that NUAIR does not believe new laws are necessary to protect privacy. It states, “We believe that existing law fully protects the public interest and that introduction of UAS into the National Airspace System does not weaken or eviscerate that legal protection.”

Elaborating on this statement, Brinker likened possible privacy infractions by drones to those that could occur from helicopters or planes.

“In UAS flying, all we've done is move the pilot from the aircraft to the ground so the same privacy regulations and law apply to a UAS flight as applies to a manned aircraft flight,” Brinker said. “We think existing law, properly enforced, is sufficient to protect privacy rights.”

 

Kade Crockford, Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project, reviewed NUAIR’s letter on privacy and called it “tone deaf.” Crockford rejected the notion that drone and helicopter surveillance were similar, noting that drones can potentially be very cheap, stealthy and small. She also argued that NUAIR’s assertion that no new laws are needed would ultimately be to the organization’s disadvantage.

“I really think that drone lobby is doing itself a disservice by flatly refusing to engage in a conversation about privacy regulations and statues,” Crockford said. She predicted that the UAS industry will “lose out in huge markets” if they do not change their approach to privacy, as more localities would pass drone restrictions, moratoriums and outright bans.

Such actions by local governments have already reached Griffiss’ doorstep before testing has even started. In December, the Syracuse city council passed a resolution prohibiting city police and agencies from using drones until state and federal regulations are in place that “adequately protect the privacy of the population.” The resolution made Syracuse the fifth municipality to pass legislative restrictions on UAS operations.

Crockford said “a broad warrant standard” for law enforcement and strict rules for how the government can access video collected by drones should be a minimum before UAS integration. She also suggested that the testing process include the development of technologies to enhance privacy, such as those that could “blur out human beings and license plates” from video feeds.

The future

Brinker said that through inevitable public scrutiny, NUAIR will maintain a commitment to transparency.

“Nothing we’re doing is non-public,” he said, “with the exception of proprietary information.”

Regardless of what that scrutiny unveils, DiMeo said the region will have a front seat to “a future of aviation Wilbur and Orville Wright couldn’t possibly have envisioned.”