The Federal Aviation Administration has approved the first of six testing sites for commercial drones.
Testing of the Draganflyer X4ES small UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) will begin the week of May 5 at the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site in North Dakota. That testing will focus, in part, on the collection of safety-related operational data. “The information will help the FAA analyze current processes for establishing small UAS airworthiness and system maturity,” read the FAA’s release on the matter. “Maintenance data collected during site operations will support a prototype database for UAS maintenance and repair.”
Data from the six testing sites will help the FAA figure out how to best integrate drone traffic into the national airspace. And that traffic is coming: Private companies have spent the past few years pouring money and resources into drone research. Google recently bought drone maker Titan Aerospace for an undisclosed sum, in addition to investing in a company that builds autopilot computers for pilotless aircrafts. Amazon claims it’s working on airborne drones capable of delivering small packages, although some have questioned whether that initiative is actually a PR stunt. Meanwhile, a variety of aerospace manufacturers and energy companies are exploring how unmanned aircrafts can survey remote areas for oil.
Over the next few years, pending FAA approval, the use of drones could become even more widespread on a consumer level. One of Renault’s latest concept cars features a small flying drone (controllable via preset GPS coordinates or a mobile device) that can scan the road ahead for obstacles and traffic. Photographers and tinkerers already send tiny aircraft aloft to capture city views and buzz unsuspecting tourists.
Does that mean demand will spike for employees who can build and maintain drones? Not in the short term: The FAA is likely a few years away from figuring out how to regulate drones in U.S. airspace. But if those regulations prove loose enough, any number of companies could find a use for a drone fleet—which could create a very pressing need for pilots, engineers, and software designers.
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