The NCSL Blog


By Richard Williams

The heavy lifting in the next phase of the nation’s nascent  unmanned aircraft (UAS/drone) industry will begin in earnest this summer at six UAS test sites.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chose the sites from among 25 applications, based on geographic and climatic diversity, ground infrastructure, aviation experience and the type of research each site would conduct.

“The applicants provided [the FAA] with a wide range of different proposals and a very robust competition. We had a very good field to choose from,” said FAA administrator Michael Huerta.

Research at the sites, which is expected to begin in July and continue through February 2017, will help identify necessary certification and operational requirements to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace. The selected sites and their principal operating entity are identified on the map below.

The creation of the test sites were congressionally mandated by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act; signed into law in February 2012. Since then, state legislative interest in UAS issues generally, and the test site application process, has been high. During 2013 state sessions, 43 states considered UAS legislation with 13 enacting laws. Addressing the test site application process, at least 11 states adopted resolutions urging the FAA to select their local application, and three legislatures—Nevada, North Dakota and Maryland—appropriated money to create and operate their test sites upon selection. States hope that being selected as a test site will make them an economic center for the growing UAS industry that, according to the Association for Unmanned Aircraft Systems International (AUVSI), will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion through 2025.

In addition to economic benefits, states and the FAA also have considered the impact UAS will have on law enforcement operations, privacy, emergency response and social behavior. “UAS provide great opportunities, but their integration also presents significant challenges,” Huerta said. As part of the test site application process, the FAA developed a privacy policy that, among other things, requires the test sites to comply with federal, state, and local laws protecting privacy. Several test site states, including Oregon, Texas and Virginia, have already enacted UAS privacy legislation, and others including New Jersey and New York are actively considering similar measures.

Over the next few years, as UAS technology evolves and their use becomes more commonplace, states will continue to consider measures addressing the policy questions they raise. Legislators are presently debating many issues including how to develop the UAS economy in their state, procedures for law enforcement to follow when using UAS, data collection and retention policies, new crimes for individuals who would misuse the technology, registration requirements and how best to bolster continued research.  

Alaska is currently the only state studying these issues with a legislative task force. Representative Shelley Hughes (R), who co-chairs the task force said, “Our members have diligently been reviewing the state’s responsibility regarding privacy concerns, and we’ll be bringing forward recommendations to the legislature to provide a safeguard to the public.” Hughes was also encouraged by Alaska being selected as a test site, adding “Alaska continues to be a leader in aviation, and this is the next wave. It makes sense to use UAS for the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks.” In the FAA’s press release, the Alaska test site, which partners with Hawaii and Oregon, was identified as being responsible for research related to “state monitoring.”


Richard Williams is a policy special in NCSL's Criminal Justice program who covers unmanned aircraft issues.

Posted in: Public Policy
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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.