Drone tests: Not in Mich.

K.I. SAWYER – Despite Michigan not being selected as one of six prized Federal Aviation Administration test site for drones, opportunities may still exist for K.I. Sawyer to be involved in future development of the technology.

In December, FAA officials announced the agency had selected six unmanned aircraft systems research and test site operators across the country. The announcement came after a 10-month selection process involving 25 proposals from 24 states, including Michigan.

The six test site operators selected by the FAA were the University of Alaska, state of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

The Michigan Advanced Aerial System Consortium had hoped to be successful in its bid to become the prime U.S. test center and industry cluster for drones. With such a designation, local officials hoped some of the projects and development of drone technology might take place at Sawyer International Airport.

“Clearly, Marquette County is disappointed that Michigan was not selected as one of the six UAS sites,” said Marquette County Administrator Scott Erbisch.

In making its selections, the FAA considered various factors including geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk.

The beginnings of the Michigan drone test site initiative began in 2011 when Explorer Solutions – a Canadian aviation and aerospace consulting firm which helped create the Upper Michigan Green Aviation Coalition – began working with Alpena County on developing a niche, similar to work the firm had done in the U.P. at the Sawyer and Houghton and Delta County airports.

“They started going through that same process of looking at the assets and cross-referencing that with where the industry was headed,” said Vikki Kulju, executive director of Telkite Enterprises at Sawyer.

Kulju told the Marquette County Board in September that coincidentally or fortunately for Alpena County, the FAA then released its proposals request for the drone test sites in February.

Alpena County then approached state officials asking for financial backing as they pursued the FAA designation. The state was also being approached by other communities.

The board chairman was Rick Carlson of the Michigan Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division. Kulju served as secretary representing the U.P. via the green aviation coalition.

Other officials on the 14-member panel include representatives from the Michigan Tech Research Institute, Alpena County, Western Michigan University, the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, the Michigan Defense Center and GE Aviation.

“Sawyer could potentially host drone testing and research,” Kulju said. “Our facilities, open skies and diverse climate and surrounding forest land are excellent criteria for selecting test sites. However, it really depends on what advances companies and universities within the Upper Peninsula are developing within the drone arena and how Sawyer could assist.”