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NUAIR pilots Northeast UAS test-site

By Norman Poltenson


SYRACUSE — Headlines around the world: “UN report calls for independent investigation of drone attacks”; “UN report reconstructs civilian death toll from drone strikes”; “Obama’s itchy trigger finger on drone”; “U.S. targets its citizens for drone attack.”

Drones, technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), have earned a reputation for military action. The first UAV was used by the Austrians, who, in the mid-1800s, released bomb-laden balloons to attack the Venetians. The U.S. military didn’t ramp up UAV development until 1960, when Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 were shot down over Soviet territory. Within days of the international incident, America launched the “Red Wagon” program to conduct surveillance with unmanned aircraft. Today, the UAV military market is huge: UAV Market Research estimates that the Department of Defense (DoD) will spend $86.5 billion over the next five years.

It’s not surprising that the public equates UAVs with the military and unsavory activities, ranging from assassination to invasion of privacy. In December of last year, however, America heard a different slant on UAVs when Jeff Bezos, the president of Amazon, introduced a “60 Minutes” TV audience to Amazon Prime Air. His company contemplates delivering packages under five pounds with a fleet of sky robots. The idea is to deliver the package to your doorstep faster than your Chinese take-out order.

While Bezos’ idea raises more questions than it answers, America suddenly saw a use for drones other than the military one. In early March, rumors began swirling that Facebook is in negotiations to buy Titan, a drone manufacturer, for a reported $60 million. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, says he wants to bring the Web to the world by connecting the 5 billion people who have no online connection today. At last, the public is coming to understand that UAVs have a variety of applications other than military.

The shift in public awareness couldn’t be better timed. Enter NUAIR, which stands for the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, Inc. (UAS is an acronym for unmanned aircraft systems.) NUAIR is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation comprised of more than 40 public and private entities and academic institutions cooperating to operate the new FAA-designated UAS test site in New York and Massachusetts, one of only six in the country. The organization’s mission is to help make skies safe for routine UAS operation in commercial space. The goal is to establish the Northeast as a national leader in UAS research, development, testing, evaluation, and business development. The UAS testing infrastructure includes the 174th Air National Guard Attack Wing in Syracuse, the Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield at Ft. Drum near Watertown, the Air Force Research Lab facility at Stockbridge in Oneida County, the Massachusetts Military Reservation at Cape Cod, Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, and Plattsburgh Air Force Base.

“We expect to begin integrating unmanned aircraft into the FAA commercial system by the end of 2015,” says Robert A. Knauff, CEO of the NUAIR Alliance and a retired two-star, Air Force general. “Of the six sites chosen, NUAIR is focusing on ‘sense-and-avoid’ technology [to ensure no air or ground collisions]. The challenge is the complexity of the system as a whole. On the one hand, a drone on a pre-defined mission is predictable, but a UAV that integrates a system of logic with commands from ground-based personnel and systems is more difficult to predict. These UAVs will be sharing the same airspace as manned flights in our national air space, a project that can’t be implemented overnight.” Currently, the U.S. air space is home to 85,000 daily flights.

NUAIR has five employees: Knauff; Anthony B. Basile, director of operations; Dr. Raymond Young, CTO; Lawrence H. Brinker, Esq., executive director and general counsel; and Andrea Bianchi, program manager. The corporation is currently sustained by contributions and loans from its members while it seeks economic-development grants. The projected 2014 budget is $600,000. NUAIR’s major revenue stream will be generated by renting the test site, which is expected to initiate testing this spring. The fee structure is not yet established … Several companies have already reserved time.

“The opportunities for commercial and civil applications [of UAVs] are practically unlimited,” asserts Knauff. “Initially, 80 percent of the growth will come in agricultural uses and another 10 percent in public safety. But think of the needs in environmental monitoring, cargo delivery, disaster response, accident investigations, mapping for planning and zoning, pipeline and infrastructure monitoring, and cellular communications, just to name a few. As for the economic impact of the UAS industry, NUAIR’s test site alone should generate more than $145 million in New York state over the next three years and produce more than $10 million in tax revenue. The industry impact on the state is projected to be another $443 million and 2,276 industrial jobs.”

Data from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) projects that the UAS industry will create 70,000 new U.S. jobs by 2017 and more than 100,000 by 2025. The total U.S. economic impact will reach $82 billion by 2025. Regionally, according to data from Hickey & Associates, LLC, the Syracuse, Binghamton, and Utica–Rome Metropolitan Statistical Areas should produce $388 million and 733 jobs by 2023. Tax revenue over the same period should generate another $46.8 million. New York is projected to be ninth in the nation in terms of economic impact and job growth from UAS integration. The Global UAV Market research reports project that the military, commercial, and civil UAV market worldwide will generate nearly $115 billion annually within a decade. The U.S. DoD procurement will expand at a compounded average growth rate of 12 percent. The U.S. and Israel will garner most of this revenue.

“This industry is poised to explode,” opines Knauff. “It’s like the Wild West … There are over 4,000 platforms in use with off-the-shelf products. This region is well positioned to benefit from the expected growth because of the infrastructure of engineering industries already advanced in sensor and radar development, academic institutions doing research in areas such as nanotechnology and imaging plus training and certifying the work force in civilian and commercial UAS operations, and military and [underused] former-military installations to support testing. Our region has the potential to become the UAS Center of Excellence. The only thing holding back the industry now is domestic policy and regulations surrounding UAS integration into the National Airspace System.” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer echoes Knauff’s vision by hoping to call Upstate the “Silicon Valley of drones.”

Saab Sensis Corp., a founding member of the NUAIR Alliance and a major supplier of airport-safety systems located in the Town of DeWitt, concurs that the industry is poised to expand. “This [UAV] industry is ready to go,” says Kenneth Kaminski, the company president and CEO. “We are seeing all kinds of innovation … It’s still too early to talk about investment and expansion [at Saab Sensis] until the policies and regulations are in place … The direction of the industry certainly bodes well for Central New York with its talent pool of engineers and academic institutions … UAVs will catalyze [substantial] change; they will be transformative. This company is well positioned to build on our experience in airborne and ground safety, and we plan to utilize the new test site once it’s operational.”

While the public is finally awakening to the commercial and civil potential for UAVs, these unmanned vehicles are still stigmatized by many as drones. “Vigils” and even intrusions at Hancock Field Air Force Base in Syracuse seek the total suppression of drones for assassination. The ACLU is a national leader in voicing concern about privacy and the “inevitable” intrusion by gaggles of circling UAVs able to clearly detect a human image from 20,000 feet. Syracuse became the fifth city in America to pass a resolution banning drones from municipal airspace. While the city Common Council’s resolution is merely symbolic, the idea is to push NUAIR and the FAA into addressing privacy concerns, even though they are not within their jurisdiction.

“NUAIR is the point of the spear,” muses Knauff. “While we are not specifically charged with creating policy guidelines for privacy, we recognize that we need to operate with the public’s approval. The FAA is currently seeking guidance in this area … The AUVSI has posted guidelines on its website.”

Knauff is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. His 33-year, Air Force career included both flying and command assignments, sprinkled with combat duty. He commanded the 174th Fighter Wing at Hancock Field between 1996 and 2003, before becoming chief of staff and then commander of the New York Air National Guard. Knauff resides with his wife in Cazenovia.

Knauff has no doubt that unmanned flight is not only here to stay but also that it’s a transformative, beneficial technology. His vision of the cockpit of the future is encapsulated in the story of the pilot and the dog. In short, if the pilot touches anything in the cockpit, the dog bites him.

Contact Poltenson at

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