ALPENA - The Federal Aviation Administration has issued screening information requests that ultimately will lead to six candidates being selected to be named a center of excellence for the testing and training of unmanned aircrafts vehicles.
Alpena County is a member of a coalition that is trying to secure one of the highly sought after designations that could lead to major development at Alpena County Regional Airport.
Laura Brown, public affairs person for the FAA, said there are certain submissions that need to made throughout the entire 80-day process. She said some information needs to be received by the FAA soon.
"It is a staggered process. Applicants do not have the entire 80 days to submit everything. There are certain things that have deadlines within 80 days," Brown said. "I believe the first deadline is next week. The entire process for the screening information requests will take 80 days."
Commissioner Tom Mullaney said he thought since there have been privacy concerns regarding drones and some legal challenges related to them, the requests might be delayed as they have been in the past. He said because the timeline for the SIR is so short all involved in the coalition need to be sure the best proposals are submitted. He said the coalition has been working with the Michigan Economic Development Commission, which is expected to pay to have a consultant put together the needed information for the federal government, but as of Friday he didn't know what the state was going to do.
Mullaney said it was believed the state was considering hiring Explorer Solutions, which worked with Alpena County for its drone plans for the airport, and a Washington company called SeaTech. Mullaney said he has not been informed who or if anyone has been hired yet. He said he has some concerns as the deadlines draw near.
"This means the state has to get motivated and take action because we're still waiting for the MEDC to get their ducks in a row. Maybe this will act as a stimulus for them to get moving," Mullaney said. "As far as any contracts the MEDC has signed we don't know anything. I'm concerned that we don't have any direction and I wish they would be more forthright with us instead of leaving us sitting back waiting."
In the government's SIR it lists several criteria that will be considered before issuing the designations. The FAA will evaluate a site's geographics, climate diversity, population density, air traffic density, research needs.
Mullaney said Alpena is a perfect fit for unmanned aircraft testing and training and is more than worthy of being a center of excellence. He said if the information requested from the FAA is submitted with all the facts included the FAA will see the region has the largest restricted airspace this side of the Mississippi River, has all types of weather and has a relatively low population.
"We are like AAA above everyone else. We have water, the international boarder for homeland security issues and our air traffic is minimal," Mullaney said. "There shouldn't be any competition at all ... we should be ahead of everybody else in location alone."
The deadline the FAA has set for the process to be complete is May 5. The agency will then hold a 60-day public comment period about the sites before making the designations.
As time becomes an issue Mullaney said he has reached out to the MEDC to try to schedule a meeting next week. He said as of Friday night he had not heard back from the it.
Commissioner Cam Habermehl said when the county hired Explorer Solutions to find a niche that could be used to promote development at the airport the plan was unmanned aircrafts even before the federal government decided to create the centers of excellence. He said should things go south and the coalition is not selected, the plans for the airport will move forward.
"The center of excellence would be a big bonus and a benefit if it happens, but we are still sticking to our original plan of developing the property at the airport," Habermehl said. "We have a list of potential companies we would like to get to move here and our project will move on no matter what happens. The center of excellence and our project are really two different things that could go well together, but we will continue forward is for some reason we get denied."