Alpena makes first cut for drone test sites

ALPENA -The Michigan Advanced Aerial Systems Consortium has cleared another hurdle in its effort to obtain one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Sites and it was a large one -one that could lead to unmanned aircraft research, testing and training in the state and possibly Alpena.

The coalition proposal- which features the State of Michigan, the University of Michigan, Alpena County and others -to obtain one of the designations has survived the first round of cuts by the FAA. The field was cut in half as the 50 applications that were submitted from 36 states was whittled to 25 from 24 states. Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center Col. Bryan Teff said he was notified that Alpena had advanced to the next step of the process. He said the news is exciting and he likes the consortium’s chances of getting approved for one of the training sites. Teff said like many other parts of the state, Alpena is a perfect fit for unmanned aircraft business.

“The six sites are expected to be selected by the end of this calendar year and now that we have made the first cut I think our chances are as good as anybody’s,” Teff said. “The big thing we have to offer is the air space above us and the limited civilian traffic. We have the huge amount of restricted airspace and complexes we can use and that are just a few of our biggest assets.”

Besides the air space, Michigan and Alpena offers many types of weather for the planes to be tested in. Because of the geography there is heat, snow, rain and wind, which would allow the drones to be exposed to nearly every type of climate and condition. The proximity to the Great Lakes and Canada also are factors that could work in the consortium’s favor.

Commissioner Tom Mullaney sits on the advisory board and has been involved in the process from the start. He said the good news is welcome and he thinks the proposal that was submitted can stand up to any of the others.

“This news is super,” Mullaney said. “We have great expectations, a great proposal and great locations and I think the people involved in Washington, D.C., are starting to see that. I believe it puts us toward the top of the heap.”

The use of unmanned aircrafts has made a lot of headlines as of late, as privacy concerns are being voiced. The revelation made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week that it has utilized drones for surveillance in the United States has sparked controversy despite the claim by FBI Director Robert Mueller that it was done only in a minimal way and very rarely. Teff said he understands the privacy concerns, but thinks some of the criticism is overblown and the people in Michigan should not be fearful.

“Manned airplanes have been using the same types of systems for years and years and I think now that they are being used on unmanned crafts people are kind of blowing it out of proportion,” Teff said. “You don’t have to worry because they are not going to be looking in your windows or spying on you.”

It is still unknown what Alpena’s role will be if the consortium proposal is accepted. The county has property on M-32 and Airport Road that could be leased to potential developers or researchers.

The project began when the county hired Explorer Solutions to find potential development opportunity. While working on unmanned aircraft possibilities, the FAA announced its intent for the proposed sites.

The county joined forces with the other members of the consortium that hired Explorer Solutions and Sea Tech Consulting to complete the proposal to the FAA. Spokesperson Elizabeth Cory said there is no dealine for when the second round of cuts will take place and each propsal is being examined individually.