From The Gainesville Sun - By Anthony Clark
It would have been nice had Florida landed an FAA drone-testing site, but the unmanned aircraft industry is building momentum in the state anyway, said Bryan da Frota, CEO of Gainesville-based Prioria Robotics.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced last week that it had selected six testing sites around the nation to determine how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace over the next several years. The application by Space Florida to use the Kennedy Space Center was not among those selected.
Out of 25 applications, the FAA selected the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York's Griffiss International Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech.
Area unmanned aircraft systems manufacturers watched the process with interest but don't expect any major changes to their operations as a result of Florida's snub.
Five companies in Gainesville manufacture drones and/or the electronic components for the aircrafts.
"What is important for us is to see that the FAA is making progress in the regulations," said John Perry, CEO of Altavian. "We look forward to the market emerging, not only here in Florida but nationally."
The test sites are expected to help establish regulations to expand the use of drones in U.S. airspace beyond current military and government uses to non-government uses such as agricultural and industrial surveys and inspections. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that the market for drone technology could be worth $89 billion over the next 10 years.
Altavian got its start providing aircraft systems to the Army Corps of Engineers to inspect dams, levees and land civil works projects and later landed a contract with the Army for military reconnaissance.
Perry said Altavian has no immediate plans with regard to the test sites but will be watching for opportunities.
He said the benefit of landing a test site is in creating a hot spot of UAS companies that bring economic development to the selected areas.
Prioria Robotics started by providing military reconnaissance aircrafts and later added civilian clients such as universities that conduct UAS research. The company has agreements with landowners and the FAA to conduct its own tests at three sites in Alachua, one in Ocala and at Camp Blanding.
Prioria was part of a coalition of manufacturers that supported Space Florida's bid.
Da Frota agrees that a test site would have driven more attention to Florida.
"Luckily, in Florida we have such a good organization, such a good coalition of companies that we're already getting attention anyway," he said.
The Unmanned Forum hosted by the Jax Chamber and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International drew more than 200 people to Jacksonville in December and the association will host its international convention in Orlando in May. State universities are conducting research into UAS applications such as farming uses.
Da Frota said the coalition will continue to try to establish a flight range site at the Kennedy Space Center and he is working to establish one in North Central Florida as well.
In the meantime, he said the company might do some work at the FAA test sites.
"We've already been contacted by all of the test sites to be able to support them," he said.