LIHUE — Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility and the island of Niihau have been selected by the University of Alaska Fairbanks as one of 13 range sites for future drone research and testing.
However, PMRF spokesman Stefan Alford said Tuesday there is no final commitment by the base.
“There’s not an agreement in place,” he said.
“They are exploring the possibility of PMRF because of our existing infrastructure, lots of air space with established safeguards, and no privacy concern impacts on the community (test flights would be over water only),” he wrote in an email.
But if one comes together, Kauai residents and visitors could see drones ranging in size from 2.5 pounds to “fairly large.” If it happens, the drones are expected to have little impact on civil aviation.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently announced six official unmanned aircraft system test site operators across the country. The Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex will be managed by UAF and include key partners in Hawaii and Oregon, according to a release.
Complex director Ro Bailey confirmed the Hawaii locations Monday and said Niihau Ranch initiated the conversation with UAF two years ago. Niihau Ranch could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The Pan-Pacific complex will allow unmanned aircraft manufacturers and potential users the ability to test their equipment in the Arctic, the tropics and arid environments, according to UAF.
As the premier test and training range in the Pacific, Alford said PMRF receives many inquiries from a variety of potential customers.
“PMRF could be considered an ideal location for UAS operations because aircraft can depart this field and enter controlled military airspace with little risk and impact to civil aviation,” he said.
Bailey said that while UAF has selected the three Hawaii locations, those locations could opt not to participate.
“We put the sites into the application. The application was accepted,” she said.
“As far as we know all of the sites were accepted.”
Operations of the test range complex are slated to begin by the middle of this year, according to UAF.
One of the big issues for PMRF, according to Alford, is that the base tries to get its range schedule confirmed a year in advance.
As of now, there is no memorandum of understanding and drone testing with AUF is not on PMRF’s schedule, he said.
Bailey and her team were in Honolulu Monday to discuss the matter with Hawaii team members. She also spoke with the Kauai Mayor’s Office.
“We let them know that we and others on Kauai are very interested in more details as to how Kauai, Niihau and PMRF may be involved in the project, and they made a commitment to keep us and the general public informed as more details become available,” county spokeswoman Beth Tokioka wrote in an email.
Bailey said PMRF appeals to UAF because of its infrastructure, experienced staff and large amount of restricted airspace.
“They’re knowledgeable and can get up to speed fairly quickly,” she said of the base.
Bailey did not have an estimate of how many unmanned aircraft flights may occur in the state annually, but said the drones will range in size from 2.5 pounds to “fairly large.” And while some operations may be interstate, the majority will be kept to one specific location, she said.
Bailey said the test site is a complex of individual ranges, including six in Alaska, four in Oregon and three in Hawaii. In addition to PMRF and Niihau, the Pohakuloa Training Area on Big Island was selected, she said.
The Pan-Pacific complex has a strong safety and data collection team in place and partners in all three states hope significant business, both in the form of site users and entrepreneurs seeking to support test site operations, will follow, the release states.
“There are some really huge opportunities in terms of jobs coming to the area and in terms of business work,” Bailey said, adding “Alaska, Oregon and Hawaii offer exceptional climatic and geographic diversity, lightly populated airspace and overwater test opportunities that can support the majority of FAA needs.”
• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.