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Jersey’s dream: Be landing spot for drone tests

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The idea of a drone that delivers packages to your door made for a much-talked-about television feature, but don't be confused: This is more than just a sci-fi vision of the future.

It is the here and now.

The federal government — perhaps as soon as the end of the year — will select six states to become laboratories for the future of unmanned aircraft. And New Jersey leaders are eager to learn if the state will be picked as one of those testing sites.

The selection will come as part of the Federal Aviation Administration's effort to develop commercial uses for drones, known formally as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS, and integrate them into U.S. airspace in the coming years. In the Garden State, experts have long said that being a testing site would jumpstart a budding aviation industry — in a place that has the right mix of business, academic and government credentials.

“It seems like a no-brainer to give New Jersey one of those six UAS sites,” said Steven Rothman, who heads the aerospace and defense industry group at the law firm Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. The former North Jersey congressman made the remarks in June at an industry conference.

His comments also came just as New Jersey had submitted its application to the FAA, aligning itself with Virginia and Maryland in hopes of boosting its chances.

And while the agency's timeline for picking the sites has been known for months, the prospect of widespread, commercialized UAS found the spotlight this month when Amazon.com unveiled plans for delivery drones during a feature on “60 Minutes.”

The aircraft, long associated with American spying and warfare, are now being touted for their potential in agriculture, photography and other fields, prompting the FAA to project that 7,500 commercial drones will be in U.S. skies by 2018.

That's where a prospective testing site such as New Jersey comes in.

“What comes to mind is safety and making sure that these things are never going to land in a place that we don't anticipate,” said Thomas Farris, dean of Rutgers University's School of Engineering, on one core mission of the testing. The school is among four New Jersey colleges and dozens of entities that make up the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, the three-state coalition that applied to the FAA this spring.

New Jersey and its partner states hope to impress the feds with their network of military bases, plus large swaths of both uncongested and restricted airspace. Farris also pointed to the William J. Hughes Technical Center, the longtime FAA research hub in Atlantic County, and a cluster of aerospace firms that can only grow if the state is picked as a drone proving ground.

“I think you become a site of choice for commercial entities that want to come and operate because you have … better access to the FAA,” he said. “So the test sites then will provide opportunities for economic development and jobs.”

Even if it's not selected, the mid-Atlantic coalition seems fixed on becoming a research hotbed. The group has been running test flights since October, including one conducted late last month by the New Jersey Institute of Technology and an aerospace firm.

The project took place at the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, a New Jersey Air National Guard training site in Barnegat Township, according to a news release from Virginia Tech. The team used a drone to assess and map damage as it might do to help first responders after a major storm.

“The team intends to remain intact to conduct unmanned aircraft systems research, development and test and evaluation activities,” Jon Greene, a Virginia Tech researcher and the director of the coalition, said in a statement on Dec. 3. He added that individual members “have flown unmanned aircraft systems for thousands of hours.”

The FAA's push to expand drone applications was spurred by Congress in 2012, but some state lawmakers are skeptical. That's led to about a half-dozen competing bills in Trenton this year to regulate the use of drones by government agencies, which range from creating an outright ban on their use by law enforcement, to setting guidelines for emergencies and criminal investigations.

The most successful measure to date passed the Senate in late June, but an Assembly version has yet to be considered. It's not clear at this point if state legislators hope to regulate the use of drones by the private sector.

In the meantime, the FAA is moving ahead with its plans. Agency spokesman Les Dorr said that after the test sites are announced, the next step will likely be proposing rules for small unmanned aircraft — likely under 55 pounds — that would cover “a wide variety of users of that class.”

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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