Arizona in the game for aircraft test site - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Arizona in the game for aircraft test site

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 8:15 am | Updated: 1:56 pm, Fri Jan 27, 2012.

The unannounced meeting of heavy hitters began at 10 a.m. on Jan. 4 in Mesa Mayor Scott Smith's office at 20 E. Main St.

The purpose, as one participant put it, was "to stoke a fire" under the state to make it a player in the coming surge of spending on the development of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, frequently referred to as drones.

In December, the President had signed a law to require the Federal Aviation Administration to designate six sites for testing and developing aircraft piloted from the ground.

The problem is America's airspace has been mostly spoken for. So the FAA has been handed a carving knife and told to make room for unpiloted aircraft development.

The law may be new, but the jockeying is not. Some states have been aggressively pursuing test site designation for months and getting their names in national news reports on the topic.

Arizona has not been one of them.

So concerned were some Arizona business leaders that in early December, Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, issued a plea for Arizona's Congressional delegation to more aggressively promote Arizona as the ideal UAS test range.

I am told that on Dec. 20, Mesa Chamber of Commerce President Peter Sterling and retired General John Regni expressed similar concerns that Arizona was not moving aggressively enough at a meeting of the Mesa Redevelopment Authority Executive Board.

I am not going to expect you to remember a board's name that I can't remember. But, just know that in government, considerable power and responsibility are often hidden behind sleep-inducing titles.

This opaquely titled board oversees the Arizona Laboratories for Security and Defense Research, also referred to simply as Arizona Labs.

The lab was once known as the Air Force Research Lab. The Defense Department transferred ownership of the lab to the city of Mesa and (This is really important) allowed it to keep its status as a place where top secret government work can be done.

Mayor Smith and those who met with him on Jan. 4 believe the lab is part of the package that Arizona can use to make its case to win test site designation.

So who was at the meeting and what did it accomplish?

According to my sources, those at the meeting included Regni; Sterling; William Harris, president of Science Foundation Arizona; Karrin Kunasek Taylor, executive vice president of DMB Associates Inc.; General Thomas Browning, who until funding expired last September headed up the Arizona Aerospace & Defense Initiative along with Regni; Brian Campbell, a Phoenix attorney who heads up the Arizona Labs oversight board; Nancy Cooke, an ASU professor who also runs a business called the Cognitive Engineering Research Institute; Steve Shope, a physicist who heads Sandia Research Corp.; Dane Mullenix of defense contractor Alion Science and Technology Corp., which manages the Arizona Labs; and Chuck Coughlin, founder of HighGround, an influential political consulting company.

I know: All the titles, commas and semi-colons are daunting. But the names and titles demonstrate the range of people who Smith brought to his office.

And they need to go into the database because I'm betting you'll be hearing more about them as this saga unfolds.

After the morning meeting in Mesa, I am told that Harris, Regni and Browning headed downtown to the office of Arizona Commerce Authority CEO Don Cardon.

And on Jan. 11, the commerce authority's board named Regni and Vicki Panhuise, chairman of the Arizona Aerospace and Defense Commission, as "technical advisors" for defense and aerospace.

Panhuise (pronounced panhouse) is a retired Honeywell vice president. A Google inquiry turned up a press release that tied her to that company's unmanned aerial vehicle development.

Regni and she are on it, Panhuise told me.

These are "brand new positions for the Commerce Authority. The first action that we're focusing on is unmanned aircraft systems," she told me.

"As a state we have not done this kind of thing before," she continued.

"Are there other states out in front of us? Yes." she said.

"We're going to do everything to make sure Arizona wins," she continued.

Asked about whether Arizona's Congressional delegation was supporting the effort, she answered that some are and that she expects others to join in.

"We met with Glenn Hamer last week and enlisted their (the state Chamber) help with the delegation. We don't think there will be any trouble getting their support."

I asked her about the meeting in the Mesa mayor's office and what role that had in stoking the fire under the Commerce Authority.

In response she pointed to a couple of studies done by the commission she chairs to suggest the fire has been burning all along. One study ranked 11 different potential Arizona airspace sites for testing.

As for the Arizona Labs in East Mesa, she said: "Obviously it would help us to have research capabilities here. Part of the (commission's) report talks about the need for a center of excellence. If there is a funding mechanism through the East Valley, that would be a benefit. I don't have the money. Would I be in favor if the East Valley's putting a lab in place? Absolutely."

So was the Jan. 4 meeting a tipping point?

Participant Karrin Taylor, whose company is developing 3,200 acres not far from the airport and laboratory in east Mesa, pointed out that the meeting "bore fruit."

It sure looks like it. Exactly one week after the meeting in Mesa, a team to lead Arizona's charge was publicly announced.

"Critical" is how Smith characterized the meeting. Had the state not acted, "we decided ... we weren't going to let that stop us."

He said the Arizona Labs was a rallying point.

"We're the only state that has the complete package," he said adding a verbal checklist: The lab, the airspace, the military presence, the educational institutions, and the industry.

Smith and new Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton paid a visit to the FAA last week in part to demonstrate their solidarity behind the Arizona Labs as part of the package.

Under the new law, the FAA is required to develop the standards and specs for identifying the six test states.

As politicians well know, you can shape the outcome through how you write the specs.

"The next six months are critical," Smith said.

A few weeks ago, I had my doubts. But it's beginning to look like Arizona is off the bench and into the game.

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