Criteria included geography, climate, safety and airspace

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The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday the sites where researchers will develop and test drones to fly safely in the same skies as commercial airliners.

Congress ordered the agency to establish the test sites as part of a goal to have unmanned aircraft share the skies with passenger planes by the end of 2015.

Geography, climate, the use of airspace and safety were among factors the FAA considered in selecting the sites from 25 applicants. The sites chosen are expected to attract economic development. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projected the industry will create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity in the decade after the aircraft are allowed in general airspace.

"Today's announcement by the FAA is an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft," said Michael Toscano, the industry group's CEO. "From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, (unmanned aircraft) can save time, save money and, most importantly, save lives."

Federal timeline

The FAA will work with all the sites to get at least one operating within the next six months. The sites are:

• University of Alaska, which has a variety of test sites in diverse climates, including in Hawaii and Oregon. The university plans to work on state monitoring, navigation and safety standards.

• State of Nevada, which plans to study standards for operators and certification requirements. The state will also study how air-traffic control procedures will evolve to handle drones.

• New York's Griffiss International Airport near Utica, which plans to research how drones and passenger aircraft will sense and avoid each other to prevent collisions, particularly in the congested Northeast airspace.

• North Dakota Department of Commerce, which plans to develop airworthiness data and validate the reliability of links between pilots and unmanned aircraft.

• Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, which plans to develop safety systems for drones.

• Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, which has test locations in Virginia and New Jersey. It plans to test failure modes and technical risks for drones to ensure they land safely if they lose connection with a pilot.

Goal: 'Safe introduction'

"These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

The Virginia project will work with Rutgers University in New Jersey. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., who is head of the aviation subcommittee, commended the FAA on its choices.

"Our cooperative efforts, in conjunction with the FAA Tech Center in Egg Harbor Township, will continue as our test site takes off and commercial unmanned aircraft systems open up new economic opportunities for our states," LoBiondo said.

The FAA's role is to help the test site operators set up a safe environment and to provide oversight that ensures the sites operate under strict safety standards. The agency doesn't contribute financially to the research.

Pilots will be notified through routine FAA announcements about where drones are being flown, in case any tests go awry.

"Safety continues to be our first priority as we move forward with integrating unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

Strict regulations

At this point, the FAA prohibits drones flying along programmed paths without a pilot to steer them.

Drones are now severely limited. A hobbyist can fly a small aircraft several hundred feet off the ground. The FAA has approved several hundred permits for university research and public uses, including 80 law-enforcement agencies.

But the research and regulations are already behind schedule. Under the congressional schedule set in February 2012, the six experimental groups announced Monday were supposed to be named by August 2012.

Huerta released a road map Nov. 7 for integrating drones into the national airspace. He said the FAA is developing a rule to be announced early next year for a wide range of smaller, civil drones.

The use of drones will be phased in, Huerta said, depending on factors such as the congestion of airspace and the climate. But he insisted that the FAA will meet the deadline to integrate drones into the general airspace by September 2015.

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