SIERRA VISTA — When Arizona was passed over by the Federal Aviation Administration as one of six test sites for unmanned aircraft in January, those involved in the application process already had a backup plan in place.
The Benson Municipal Airport was one of the candidates vying for FAA site selection, with Mignonne Hollis, executive director of the Sierra Vista Economic Development Foundation spearheading the project. Hollis, who has been working closely with the Arizona Commerce Authority in bringing UAS technology to the area, has served as the point person for the southeastern region. She also serves on the governor’s Aerospace and Defense Commission.
During a presentation in March, whee she spoke before a Southeast Arizona Economic Development Group luncheon in Benson, Hollis appeared undaunted by the FAA’s decision to bypass Arizona, pointing to new opportunities for unmanned aerial systems projects in Cochise County. Most recently, those projects enter on testing small Class 1 and 2 unmanned systems on a 160-acre property in Whetstone, with the SVEDF seeking a special use permit through the county for that purpose.
“There is tremendous potential for UAS sited in southeastern Arizona,” Hollis said. “We have nine solid companies in the pipeline that are interested in the Whetstone location, so this is exciting news for Cochise County and economic potential UAS projects will bring to our area.”
Known as the “Four Pillars” facility; the proposed test site is a privately owned FAA airstrip and includes an adjoining property. Located off Highway 82 between Tombstone and the Mustang Crossing intersection in Whetstone, Four Pillars is considered an ideal test site because of its somewhat remote location.
“Four Pillars will feature small UAS technology and will never serve as a place to test large unmanned aircraft,” said Hollis. “There is a misconception that we will be bringing larger unmanned systems to this site in the future, but that will not be happening. We are not set up with a tower, are limited by airspace and do not have the infrastructure for large unmanned system.”
The small unmanned systems must fly at “line of sight, which requires visual contact with the UAS at all times,” Hollis said. “So, we do not have the capacity to incorporate the larger UAS aircraft that Fort Huachuca is using.” All larger, tower-related unmanned systems would have to go through Fort Huachuca, Hollis explained.
The purpose of the Four Pillars facility is to allow companies to test UAS products for effectiveness and to serve as a training site for the technology’s recipients. “All flying will be done over the property and the FAA approved runway and will not exceed 400 feet,” Hollis said. “These Class 1 and 2 systems are less than 55 pounds and look nothing like the large drones we see around out military bases.”
Hollis says all paperwork for the permitting process has been submitted to Planning and Zoning, property owners in the area have been notified of the proposed test site and there will be a heraing regarding the special use permit on April 9 at 4 p.m. in the county building in Bisbee.
“There are companies throughout the state that need the testing capabilities that we have right here in southeastern Arizona,” Hollis said. “Our ideal weather conditions, air space and terrain are all natural assets this area offers. We want to leverage those assets to strengthen our economic base.”
QUESTIONS ON UAS TECHNOLOGY:
What are some applications of Unmanned Aerial Systems Technology?
The following list has been provided by Mignonne Hollis, executive director of Sierra Vista Economic Development Foundation.
- UAS can be positioned to survey damage in the event of natural and man-made disasters without risking the safety of first responders or rescue teams.
- They can be used to support law enforcement in a number of different capacities.
- Through the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate commercial UAS into the National Airspace System by 2015, thereby opening the floodgates for new technologies and opportunities.
If the special use permit is granted for the Four Pillars UAS test facility, will this make way for larger UAS at a later date?
No. Larger unmanned systems would require more airspace and a tower at the airfield, along with other infrastructure upgrades, Hollis said. This proposed test site is for the small sized Class 1 and 2 UAS only.
What kinds of oversight and precautions will be taken to ensure safety to surrounding residences and properties, as well as addressing the concerns of property owners?
- Thompson-Wimmer Inc., a leading technical service provider, has been hired as a site manager. A site manager will be present for purposes of safety and compliance monitoring.
- All flying will be over the 160 acre property and FAA approved runway.
- Flying will not exceed 400 feet.
- All takeoff and landing patterns will maintain maximum clearance from residences and buildings.
- All issues and concerns from residents in the area will be addressed promptly with full consideration to reasonable privacy and enjoyment of the property owners.