The Federal Aviation Administration took another step toward integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the United States airspace.

On Dec. 30, the FAA announced the selection of six test sites for UAS research, which could have major implications for the surveying, mapping and geospatial communities.

The six sites are the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech.

FAA officials considered geography, climate, ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk in selecting the sites, according to a press release.

Though commercial use of UAS currently is prohibited in the United States, UAS can be used by government agencies that have obtained certificates of authorization (COAs). But Congress has mandated that the FAA integrate UAS into the national airspace by 2015, and the agency recently has taken steps toward that goal.

In November, the FAA released its first roadmap for UAS. With the test sites’ announcement just before the end of 2013, the FAA hopes to achieve its research goals of system safety and data gathering; aircraft certification; command and control link issues; control station layout and certification; ground and airborne sense and avoid; and environmental impacts.

"The announcement of the six test sites is a welcomed gift to start the New Year as businesses in the geospatial community see unmanned aircraft systems as a revolutionary new platform to provide critical information and geographic data to the citizens of the United States,” John Palatiello, the Executive Director for MAPPS said in a statement on the organization’s blog, Spatially Speaking. "MAPPS congratulates the six operating locations and commends the FAA for this announcement.”

According to MAPPS, the test sites are to be open to commercial users, even though all six are operated by public entities.

"MAPPS members are encouraged to work with these test site operators to research and develop their UAS platforms, data acquisition systems, and applications, as well as to assure full commercial participation in order to prevent unfair university or government competition,” Palatiello said.

There are many potential benefits for commercial use of UAS, many of which extend to the geospatial community for applications such as surveying and photogrammetry.

“In designating the first UAS test sites in these states, the FAA has taken an important step toward recognizing the incredible economic and job creation potential this technology brings,” Michael Toscano, the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said in a statement. “AUVSI’s economic report projects that the expansion of UAS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs nationwide and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade following integration.”

While there are potential economic benefits, UAS face several obstacles in the United States, most notably privacy issues.

But in a press release, FAA officials noted safety will come first at the test sites.

“Safety continues to be our first priority as we move forward with integrating unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “We have successfully brought new technology into the nation’s aviation system for more than 50 years, and I have no doubt we will do the same with unmanned aircraft.”