Kansas State is part of a team of three universities and multiple businesses vying to be picked by the Federal Aviation Administration as one of six test sites for drones.
Kurt Barnhart, executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State's campus in Salina, said the team includes members outside Kansas and that they envision the test site including multiple locations. In Kansas, the drones, known in the industry as unmanned aerial systems or remotely piloted aircraft, would be tested primarily in airspace near Salina.
He declined to provide other details, including the names of its university and business partners, saying that the competition is fierce and that providing too much information could put the team at a competitive disadvantage.
The FAA, which made a request for proposals last month, is required by a law enacted a year ago to develop sites where civilian and military drones can be tested in preparation for integration into U.S. airspace that's currently limited to manned aircraft.
The law also requires that the FAA allow drones wide access to U.S. airspace by 2015, but the agency is behind schedule on that.
The test sites are planned to evaluate what requirements are needed to ensure the drones don't collide with planes or endanger people or property on the ground. Remotely controlled drones don't have a pilot who can see other aircraft the way an onboard plane or helicopter pilot can.
Barnhart said the project isn't a stretch for Kansas, noting the state already has a significant aircraft manufacturing presence. Federal officials already have authorized several drone testing projects in the state.
Industry experts predict the takeoff of a multibillion-dollar market for civilian drones as soon as the FAA completes regulations to make sure they don't pose a safety hazard to other aircraft.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted in a study released this week that Kansas will be among the Top 10 states in the country to see significant economic growth once drones are integrated into the national airspace system in 2015. In the three years that follow, Kansas is expected to see the creation of 2,515 new jobs, with the total economic impact in the state surpassing $489 million.
"Since there's that aeronautical expertise already here, we think it's a natural fit for Kansas to be part of the next wave of aviation," he said. "That's really the advantage and what Kansas can bring to the whole discussion."
Barnhart said applications must be submitted by May, with teams hoping to learn by late fall whether they're among the winners. He said being selected as a test site doesn't bring immediate cash but increases the chances of winning grants and contracts.
"These test sites are such a new thing with FAA," Barnhart said. "It's a little bit hard to tell how much activity we are going to see and when. There are a lot of unknowns at this point."