ROME, N.Y. – Federal regulators have approved drone research flights at a central New York airport, one of six sites nationwide chosen to assess the safety of the aerial robots in already busy skies.
The other initial mission at Griffiss International Airport in Rome will be to study how drones can help farmers stay on top of pests, weeds and the conditions of their crops.
Flights could begin in a couple of weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration approval Thursday, said the NUAIR Alliance, a consortium of private industry, academic institutions and the military. Future operations will include Massachusetts and could involve flights from Cape Cod for a variety of purposes, including maritime studies.
Congress told the FAA in 2012 to develop guidelines for commercial drone operations by the end of 2015. That process is behind schedule and the FAA is wrestling with increasing unauthorized drone activity.
Larry Brinker, NUAIR's executive director and general counsel, said the New York program will gather information to help understand how drones can operate safely with other aircraft.
And sensors on PrecisionHawk Lancaster Hawkeye Mk III aircraft, which weighs 3 pounds and has a 4-foot wingspan, will be used for experiments in improving how farmers monitor their fields.
Bill Verbeten, a regional agronomist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, said cameras and other imaging devices can do something as simple as spot crop damage or as complicated as gauging what a crop might need by assessing its green hue. He hopes for initial flights in September covering a small area, and authorization to fly over as many as 5,000 acres in western New York by the start of next year's growing season.
"When we do this, we want to do it right," Verbeten said. "We want to help the farming community."
He said taking time and care to train, plan and work with local airports and air traffic control is important to the future of commercial drones.
"I am worried about people not trained to abide by the rules," Verbeten said, particularly the possibility of "tragic and unnecessary events."
The other test sites are in Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, Texas and Virginia.