By Steve Wilhelm, December 2, 2013, Puget Sound Business Journal
Pat Jones would like to have Amazon develop its proposed drone aircraft-based package delivery system at Moses Lake.
The Eastern Washington town is vying to become one of six FAA test centers for unmanned aerial vehicles, the robot flying machines also known as UAVs or drones.
Jones, executive manager of the Port of Moses Lake, said the FAA is to choose the sites by the end of December.
“We’d love to have Amazon testing at our Pacific Northwest flight center,” Jones said Monday, referring to the site’s formal name, Pacific Northwest Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Center.
Unpiloted drones, of course, have become an increasingly common — sometimes controversial — tool in law enforcement and other endeavors. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said on “60 Minutes” Sunday night that Amazon is developing a near-instant order delivery system that would utilize small robot helicopters.
“That was very interesting news and we’d love to have them using our facilities,” Jones said.
While the Amazon system wouldn’t be able to lift anything heavy, it would be able to deliver products within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon warehouse, Bezos said.
But first, the system has to be tested out and then approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which so far is allowing only very limited uses of UAVs in civil airspace. This is where the proposed Moses Lake facility could come in.
“The big challenge for the industry is to get the FAA to allow UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operations in the national airspace,” Jones said.
A test site in Washington could speed things up, and perhaps support Amazon, which tends to develop new concepts near its Seattle headquarters.
In May, a group called Innovate Washington, which comprises the University of Washington,Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and other entities, submitted to the FAA the application for a test site for drones.
“We’re optimistic…We have a really comprehensive proposal that the state of Washington supports, and the major partners are Pacific Northwest National Labs, UW, WSU, and the state,” Jones said.
He added that he believes 25 viable applications were submitted, adding that the FAA has made little information available about the process.
“They continue to say they’re going to have a decision by the end of the year,” he said. “The FAA has been extremely closemouthed about what their process is. There’s very little communication or indication of where they’re heading in their decision.”
If approved, the center would have six sites scattered across Washington, although the center would be headquartered at the Port of Moses Lake. This facility features the longest runway in the state, due to its role as a former military base, but relatively light aircraft traffic.
In addition to the potential of working with Amazon, the test range would support other companies interested in unmanned flight.
Among them is a social network called FarmCloud, which Jones said has expressed interest in using UAVs to monitor agriculture.