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FAA picks N.J. as drone testing site

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New Jersey will become a testing site for drones under the federal government's plan to commercialize unmanned aircraft over the next several years, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday.

After six months of review, the agency named the six public entities nationwide that will research and test the unmanned systems in hopes of safely integrating them into U.S. airspace. One of the six was Virginia Tech, the lead applicant in a group that included several Garden State colleges, public agencies and businesses.

The designation is a major win for New Jersey business and academic leaders who say drone testing would bring its aviation industry to new heights, adding to the defense and aerospace firms that already operate here. The state has touted its network of military bases, large swaths of airspace and the William J. Hughes Technical Center, the longtime FAA research hub in Atlantic County, in its bid to become a proving ground.

And while drones have long been associated with spying and warfare, they are now being cited for their potential in agriculture and other commercial fields. The FAA has projected that 7,500 commercial drones will be in U.S. skies by 2018.

Rutgers University is one of at least four New Jersey academic institutions involved in the partnership.

"Rutgers is well positioned to support the FAA's research and testing efforts to ensure that unmanned aircraft systems can fly safely in our nation's skies," Rutgers President Robert Barchi said in a prepared statement. "Building on our region's important contributions to flight research, we look forward to working with our mid-Atlantic partners as we enter this exciting new era of aeronautical innovation."

The FAA test site operators also include Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota and Texas, according to Monday's news release. The agency noted Virginia Tech's proposal "includes test site range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey."

One key site in South Jersey will likely be the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park, the long stalled, undeveloped complex associated with the FAA's "NextGen" program. Richard Stockton College, which took over the project in September, saidit expects it "to play an active role" in the research done by the Virginia and New Jersey team.

"The park will provide a location in close proximity and with connectivity to the William J. Hughes Technical Center for industry, government and academic representatives," Ronald Esposito, the park's executive director, said in a prepared statement. "The tech center will be the lead facilitator of data collected from each of the six test sites."

He added that the Stockton ARTP has formal agreements with the tech center and Atlantic City International Airport for joint research, "which should prove valuable to the test site."

New Jersey and Virginia submitted their application in May, competing against 25 other applicants from 24 states. The FAA said that in selecting the six test site operators, it considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk.

"Safety continues to be our first priority as we move forward with integrating unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a prepared statement. "We have successfully brought new technology into the nation's aviation system for more than 50 years, and I have no doubt we will do the same with unmanned aircraft."

The agency's push integrate and commercialize the so-called UAS was spurred by Congress last year.


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