West Virginia City Wants to Join FAA Drone Program

Efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate drone traffic has the attention of the city of Bluefield.

by Greg Jordan, Bluefield Daily Telegraph / January 16, 2018
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(TNS) — BLUEFIELD — A Mercer County city is hoping to become part of a federal program that’s addressing a new challenge: How to regulate the thousands of drones flying into the nation’s skies.

The city of Bluefield is applying to join a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program that’s designed to help the agency learn how to regulate the many drones now being used across the nation. This program is known as the UASIPP, according to Brandon Saddler, a geographic information system (GIS) analyst for the city of Bluefield.

“The UASIPP stands for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. It’s an opportunity, for state, local and tribal governments to partner with private companies such as UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operators and manufacturers to accelerate safe UAS integration,” Saddler said. “In this program, it’s kind of a divide and conquer method for the FAA. They’ve been hit with thousands of drones trying to get into airspace, and the problem they run into is resources and what’s the best methods. Kind of using this application process, and each individual application is a case study.”

Bluefield and the surrounding area would be a good place to test the ways drones could be used, he said.

“I think we have a good chance because we have a 4,000-foot mountain on one side, we have the airport on the other side, our city lies in a valley and you can go from kind of an urban setting to a rural setting very quickly. We have a fair amount of traffic, private traffic, out of our airport. It will open up other doors,” Saddler stated. “One of the ideas we have going right now is like a large drone system that would ship goods say like FedEx parcels. Not on the level of Amazon where it would deliver to your door necessarily, but this would be more like bulk shipping. This would be large UAS flying between Beckley and Princeton because right now everything has to be trucked from Beckley to Princeton.”

These unpiloted aircraft would not be the small models commonly associated with drones.

“These are big drones,” he said. “We’re talking about drones that have a 300-pound payload. They’re fixed wing, kind of like a military drone; instead of delivering munitions, they’re carrying parcels. That’s kind of what I see in one of my visions and it would help with truck traffic on the turnpike.”

Under the UASIPP program, the city has a memorandum of understanding with the Center of Applied Research and Technology, a nonprofit entity housed at Bluefield State College. The FAA has a team reviewing the program’s applications, and Bluefield could get a reply this spring, Saddler said.

But plans are being made for drone projects the city can do if its application is approved. Saddler pointed out a map on his office wall. It outlined five possible flight zones including ones around the city, the Mercer County Airport, the area around local reservoirs, highway interchanges and the Bluefield Industrial Park. This map will later be available on the city’s website.

“These are five airspaces I’ve came up with (map on the wall). I thought if we had five airspaces instead of one large one, we might get into a give and take with the FAA,” Saddler stated. “We might be able to get the Core, which would be the main city. Maybe not the airport. Maybe the Reservoir, the Interchange and so on. This is where the R & D, the research and development flight areas would be.”

“And would turn the Bluefield area into a drone research airspace. We will be partnering with CART, and we’ll have another partner on the data processing, Vector Geo Analytics LLC. They’re based out of Peterstown,” he said.

Drone exercises around the city could include LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging.) It’s not a new technology, but it would be new to the Mercer County area. A larger drone would carry a LIDAR system and use it for scanning.

“It shoots a laser, and you get a point cloud. Each has a latitude, longitude, and an elevation associated with it,” Saddler said. “And when you put all of those together, you end up with 3D terrain. It’s very accurate. You can use it to detect cracks in pavement, subsidence in roads where there are dips that are getting underwashed. And you can use it for 3D buildings.”

Part of the projects the city would want to do include sending alerts from the county airport which would tell pilots when drones are in their vicinity. Local drones wouldn’t be flown very high.

“We are flying at or less 400 feet AGL: AGL is Above Ground Level, so 400 feet. Around here, you really don’t need to get much higher than that because the higher up you go, the more degraded your data is,” Saddler said. “As far as operations we want to advance to BVS (Beyond Visual Sight) which I’ve applied for the city....I’ve already tested and I’m a license commercial drone pilot.”

Saddler said he also wants the program to qualify for night operations, but another restriction to overcome is a prohibition against flying over people.

“The hardest one to do, and it’s the hardest one to apply for, and that’s advancing to operations over human beings. You cannot fly drones over human beings unless you can prove to the FAA that your drone will not incur injury on a person should it fall out of the sky, which involves crashing drones, and I really don’t want to use mine for that,” he said.

Bluefield won’t become a place where drones can fly without restrictions. The city now has reporting system on the Fix It Bluefield website. Called Drone Incident Reporting Module, citizens can use it to report drone problems. These reports are sent to Saddler and Police Chief Dennis Dillow. Saddler recalled a recent instance when a drone crashed near a car going down Route 460. A driver retrieved the drone.

“Stuff like that needs to be reported, because if that had hit a car or someone on a motorcycle, it could have caused an accident,” Saddler said.

This is more a research and development program. If powerful enough sensors can be obtained, drones could perform tasks such as searching for cars and debris that have sunk into local reservoirs. Other exercises could be performed near the city.

“Most of our work’s going to be in what we call the Core Airspace. That’s where most of the population is,” he stated. “We’ve included the city park. As far as missions go, there’s a couple of mock training missions that we want to do with first responders. One of the sections we’re applying for is search and rescue. On the property that the city has on the north side, I’m planning to do a mock search and rescue there because it’s heavily wooded and it’s not too far away where first responders couldn’t leave and respond to a call. That was my main concern.”

“Another mission I want to do is roof inspection; instead of sending a person onto the roof of one of the city-owned buildings, like the (Research and Development) Building in Bland Street, we can use a drone. Instead of sending guys out on the roof, I can shoot the whole roof in 4K and come back and look at it, and if you find anything then you send somebody up to look at it,” Saddler added.

City Manager Dane Rideout said drone technology has been exploding since the 1990s. Applying to the FAA program could help the city establish itself as a place utilizing such systems. The hope that having such technology in use could entice technology businesses into the city.

“The key piece is that a lot of folks are applying for it,” Rideout said of the FAA program. “We’ve actually made an application and we’re putting our best foot forward.”

Another asset is the city’s relationship with Bluefield State College, which has one of “the best robotics programs in the world if not the nation,” he added.

“We’re going to do everything we can to be a pilot city in the program, and hopefully that will lead to technology-based companies establishing residence inside the city limits,” Rideout said.

©2018 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.