By Richard Wheeler - February 28, 2011
When I was a kid going to summer camp in New York’s Adirondack
Mountains, I counted myself lucky if I saw a black bear once or twice in a season. But campers may soon be able to regularly
see something bigger and badder when climbing the High Peaks: Reaper drones flown by the New York Air National Guard’s
174th Fighter Wing based in Syracuse, New York.
And drones aren’t just buzzing over the Adirondacks. The
proposal to begin training missions there is part of a bigger push to build a drone infrastructure for flying missions throughout
the United States. So new drone bases are being built. The FAA is setting aside airspace for drone flights. And you can even
get an accredited college degree in roboplane repair or operations. (No word whether you can get advanced placement credit
for using drones in Call of Duty, but check this space for updates.)
Today, most U.S. drones operate overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan,
with rumors of drone use in Yemen, Somalia, and other regions around the Horn of Africa. Most of these are flown by the military
— and a few by the CIA. But because of United States law and regulation, neither of these groups can easily fly drones
within the United States.
National Guard units and civilian contractors could fly these
missions, if only there was enough space and adequate facilities to train the operators and technicians required to do so.
But that would require shifting resources and building new facilities. In other words, an opportunity for Congresscritters
to bring home the cash for their states and home districts. The race for a piece of the growing drone pie has begun.
The latest example is the amendment proposed by Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)
to the “FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Act” (S.223) that would increase the number of “National
Airspace System” test sites from four to ten. At least one of these sites would have to include a “significant
portion” of public land.
The Adirondacks, in Schumer’s home state, clearly fit
this bill. And not surprisingly, there is also a proposal to use the Juniper Military Area, located in Wyden’s
home state of Oregon, as another drone test area.
But Schumer and Wyden are, if anything, playing catch-up in
a race that has already seen the establishment of unmanned aerial vehicle test and training sites at Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, North Dakota; the National Air Intelligence Center in Springfield, Ohio; Langley AFB in Hampton, Virginia; Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City,
South Dakota; Mountain Home AFB in Mountain Home, Idaho; and Whiteman AFB in Knob Noster, Missouri. Thanks to President Teddy Roosevelt and the establishment of
the National Parks system, we can probably expect that the other 42 states not already mentioned will be competing to serve
up some of their public land as drone proving grounds.
In addition to test and training sites, Federal education and
stimulus money is being used to create nonmilitary drone education programs. The Department of Aviation at the University of North Dakota, located in Grand Forks and the operator of the test and training site at Grand Forks AFB, now offers the first Bachelors of Science program in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations. The Aviation Maintenance Technology program at Northland Community and Technical College, located in Thief River Falls, Minnesota just 40 miles east of
Grand Forks, will soon offer courses in the repair of UAVs. Garrison Keillor will probably announce a new drone shop class
at the high school in Lake Wobegon next.
Although it is hard to predict where the drone infrastructure
will grow, if other defense contracting projects are a reliable guide, the drone-ification of America will probably continue
until there is a drone aerodrome in every state and a drone degree program to go with it. Drone Scout jamborees and merit
badges cannot be far behind — coming soon to a summer camp near you.