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States joust for sites in a game of drones

By Richard Simon
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON Although the prospect of drones flying over U.S. cities is generating cries of spies in the skies, groups from California to Florida are fiercely competing to become one of six federally designated sites for testing how the remotely piloted aircraft can safely be incorporated into the nation’s airspace.

North Dakota boasts of its “minimal air traffic congestion.” North Carolina, whose license plates read “First in Flight,” cites its aviation history. California pitches its diverse geography: desert, mountains and ocean.

Technically, the designation itself offers no money, but 50 groups in 37 states have entered the Federal Aviation Administration competition. States see the designation as an opportunity to generate jobs from a burgeoning industry.

Oklahoma notes its experience in testing drones for the military. Arizona boasts of its nearly year-round “perfect flying weather.” Florida sees its sometimes severe weather as a plus for testing drones in all kinds of conditions.

Not everyone is enthusiastic.

Even as the competition rages, lawmakers from city halls to Congress are writing legislation to restrict drone flights. The FAA also is getting an earful from a public anxious about drones invading their privacy.

Those vying for test sites say that privacy concerns should be addressed separately from the testing. But they are aware of the concerns.

North Carolina has proposed testing in airspace over crops. “Corn doesn’t care” about drones flying overhead, said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University. The FAA has directed that existing privacy laws be obeyed during testing.

Those bidding for test sites – in many cases alliances of economic development groups, universities and aerospace companies – believe that if they land a test site, drone manufacturers will follow.

Aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. estimated that worldwide drone spending will almost double over the next decade to $11.4 billion. Thousands of drones are expected to be deployed over the U.S. within the next five years for all sorts of chores, including inspecting pipelines and helping police track criminal suspects.

North Carolina proposes a range just 14 miles long and four miles wide; other states propose ranges that take in hundreds of miles of restricted airspace, generally over lightly populated areas. Two California groups propose testing over the desert and ocean and at small airports.

Tests initially are expected to focus on small drones, 50 pounds or less, but eventually could include bigger drones like the ones used in combat – but unarmed.

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