FAA Should Reconsider Michigan for Testing Drones

The Wolverine State offers every class of airspace, long distances over water and enviable rural land mass. The FAA recently rejected Michigan as a test site for drone integration into public services. The feds should reconsider.

By Army Lt. Col. Jeremy Latchaw

Michigan’s geographical expanse supplies drone pilots with the widest range of opportunities for testing low-altitude operations for emergency response.

The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) recently collaborated with state, local and tribal governments — along with private sector entities — to accelerate drone integration into emergency preparedness in what they call the Integration Pilot Program. The program assists the federal government in creating new rules that support more complex Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

We may never know why the FAA declined Michigan, but we do know that the state failed to submit a well-defined research concept. It is unfortunate because Michigan supplies immense benefits, and it could incorporate each concept that the Integration Pilot Program Lead Participants proposed.

The FAA should reconsider Michigan. The state can help itself by resubmitting a more focused and collaborative research concept that magnifies its vast trove of resources.

No other state possesses such long distances over water. North Carolina and California both boast their coasts, but weather patterns over the ocean are less predictable than inner freshwater lakes. Other states with pilot programs — such as North Dakota or Kansas — provide beyond visual line of sight capabilities. However, only Michigan offers the same amount of land mass distance in rural populated areas, specifically in the Upper Peninsula.

Michigan features the longest freshwater coastline in the United States, and ranks among the top 10 overall coastlines in the U.S. Lake Michigan alone contains 45 islands. Beaver Island, North Fox Island and South Fox Island host airports. To truly test an unmanned aircraft, try flying over Lake Michigan from Charlevoix to Beaver Island. The route appraises endurance when traveling from one airport to the other without risking collateral damage to any property.

Michigan supplies all of the airspace classifications that exist. Detroit’s Class B airspace ranks among the busiest in the country. Of those chosen for the FAA pilot program, only Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada and California provide Class B space.

The Mitten’s international border with Canada adds complexity to both lower and higher altitude drone operations. Detroit and Windsor distinguish themselves with two of the most complex international boundary airspaces in the country. Not only does it offer Class B airspace (up to 10,000 feet), but it includes stadiums, large populations and a compressed border over the Detroit River, which spans only one half-mile at certain points. North Dakota features an international boundary, but it does not provide Class B airspace.

Drone operators may collaborate with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection to test over actual international waterways. For a test outside such a Byzantine area, try Sault Ste. Marie. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario airport’s Class D airspace (up to 2,500 feet), is the same as Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The state can coordinate international departures and arrivals at the same airport.

Michigan enjoys 458 airports, outranking any other state chosen by the FAA except California. The Aeronautical Chart identifies Military Operations Areas, Restricted Areas and classes B, C, D, E and G. Lake Superior proffers a special conservation area. Have a project that integrates UAS research with the National Park Service? Michigan presents Isle Royale, a 45-mile-long island full of research on wolves and moose. Want less airspace classification? Head to Grand Marais airport in the Upper Peninsula, where east of the airport is all Class G for more than 100 miles.

If the FAA chooses your company to collaborate on a pilot program, you would be smart to partner with Michigan. If you are with the FAA, you might want to reconsider Michigan as a state to invest federal aviation integration resources. If you are a firm hoping to implement UAS, look no further than Michigan, where all of the geographic needs exist within two grand peninsulas.

We did not even get into other resources Michigan offers to UAS companies through the Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium (MUASC) and PlanetM. MUASC grants certificates of authorization that help companies with their testing, while leveraging Michigan’s workforce. PlanetM creates partnerships to develop mobility technology for the future.

Only Michigan owns the land mass, coastline and the Great Lakes to fully accommodate any test site. FAA, please reevaluate the Wolverine state as the premier test site in the U.S. for drone integration. It will not disappoint.

Army Lt. Col. Jeremy Latchaw is the CEO of Macatawa Unmanned Systems — the top sUAS security and integration company in the U.S. — a business professor at Western Michigan University and an award-winning author.

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