Image via Virginia Tech

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, introducing commercial unmanned aerial vehicles to U.S. skies could potentially add more than $13.6 billion to the national economy by the end of the decade. Virginia Tech is playing a major role in trying to make that estimation a reality.

Federal Aviation Administration officials announced Wednesday that the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems test site program at Virginia Tech is fully operational and now equipped to conduct research essential for the integration of unmanned aircraft into America’s airspace.

“We are transitioning new types of aircraft into the nation’s skies that have tremendous potential to help people and create new industry,” said Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands. “Unmanned aircraft will be useful for agriculture, search-and-rescue missions, disaster response, research, and innovations. With the onset of a new technology, industries are born and new infrastructure evolves — the economic impacts will be enormous.”

The university received seven Certificates of Waiver or Authorization for two-years from the FAA, time that will allow Virginia Tech to gather enough information to ensure unmanned aircraft operations are safe to operate with manned aircraft.

Rose Mooney, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, says that moving forward, Virginia Tech plans to take procedures with low-flight risks “to the next level with larger, faster, and higher flying aircraft.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe joined leaders from Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey at the Virginia Smart Road in Blacksburg to watch a first-hand simulation of Virginia Tech engineers using an unmanned aircraft to gather data about a mock accident scene on an interstate highway. Clearly fascinated by the future of unmanned aviation, McAuliffe spoke about how much of an impact Virginia Tech’s work has had on the region.

“Early in this process, the Commonwealth of Virginia realized how vital unmanned aircraft systems testing is for building a new Virginia economy focused on innovation, diversification, and new technology that will enable Virginia to compete on a global scale,” said McAuliffe. “We publically pledged support to this effort, and then backed up those words with funding. It is gratifying to see our work has made the mid-Atlantic region a leader in unmanned aircraft system research.”