View Issues Subscribe for FREE
Up in the Sky

by C.J. Mittica

The usage of drones could become a global game-changer and South Jersey is at the forefront of the ground-breaking research.

There is a new idea taking flight in South Jersey, one of unlimited impact and revolutionary capabilities: drones. But this isn’t the controversial weapon that is now defining America’s overseas military presence. It’s a life-altering technology with hundreds of prospective commercial uses, everything from disaster relief capabilities to transporting packages. Realizing the potential, Congress imposed a September 2015 deadline for drones to be allowed in the national airspace.

This area’s drone story started at the end of 2013, when South Jersey was tapped by the Federal Aviation Agency to serve as a key site in its drone testing program. The benefits are quite clear. Not only could it bring significant job growth, but it also positions the region at the forefront of the biggest aviation advance in decades—something that experts believe can ultimately grow into a $100 billion industry. “The opportunities,” says Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.), who chairs the House aviation subcommittee, “are enormous.”

However, nothing is assured yet. Regulation development has been glacial, and a quick integration is very much in doubt. South Jersey’s big payoff awaits—but only if and when those drones are allowed off the ground.

The truth is that drones are in American skies right now. Some are owned by the military and government. Others are operated by hobbyists for photography and other recreational pursuits. Most are being flown illegally.

That will change over the next few years. The same substantial leap in military technology can be harnessed on our shores by private companies, law enforcement agencies and more. There are drones that can fly and swim. There are drones that can last for up to 16 hours on just a gallon and a half of fuel. There are drones as small as a few pounds and as large as a Boeing 757.

Most importantly, drones—known in aviation circles as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)—could potentially perform hundreds of vital functions, like inspections of key infrastructure such as power grids and bridges, locating lost children through facial recognition, precision agriculture that sprays certain crops instead of entire fields, and monitoring major environmental events like hurricanes and wildfires. They could even be used to deliver packages straight to your door, as Amazon revealed late last year. In fact, in July, the retail giant asked the FAA for permission to conduct test flights using drones as means for delivery.

“This is a new birth of aviation within our borders that has unlimited potential,” says Steve Iaquinto Jr., director of operations with West Berlin-based Sunhillo, which is heavily involved in UAS research.

Not surprisingly, demand to participate is high. “There is just unbelievable private sector interest and investment in this,” says LoBiondo. But if thousands of drones were to lift off over U.S. soil right now, without the proper policies in place, the results could be chaotic and dangerous—maybe even deadly if one were to interfere with the flight of a jumbo airliner carrying hundreds of passengers.

Because of that, the FAA’s testing program serves an essential need: teasing out the technical and logistical challenges to allow commercial, non-military drones to safely take to the skies. Ideally, it would fast forward drone development; currently it requires months and mountains of paperwork for one day of approved drone flight time.

In the program, New Jersey is part of a consortium called the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), that is equally split between three universities in three different states: Rutgers, the University of Maryland, and Virginia Tech. (The endeavor is university-led but includes a number of government agencies, private companies and non-profit organizations.) While MAAP is one of six testing groups across the country, all the data from the FAA program will be processed locally, at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor.

Test flights won’t likely occur until the fall, and both researchers and officials are keeping mum on the exact nature of the research that will take place. A number of locales will be used as test sites, including the Pinelands National Reserve, the Air National Guard Range at Warren Grove and the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park.

It’s clear that geography will play a factor: The testing sites will not only allow drones to fly out over the Atlantic Ocean, but also interact with one of the nation’s most densely populated airspaces. “The FAA knew the combination of commercial and restricted airspace in New Jersey is particularly useful for the data it needs to collect,” says Tom Farris, dean of the Rutgers School of Engineering, who will be leading the state’s research efforts in the program.

The data and the testing will help solve the numerous challenges to safely integrate these aircraft. Without the benefit of a pilot’s vision, how can drones avoid entities without transponding beacons—things like older aircraft, hot air balloons and parachutists? How can air traffic controllers communicate with drone operators as they would with a pilot on any manned aircraft?

Moreover, it will solve baffling policies currently in place. For example, to fly a UAS beyond the operator’s actual line of sight, the FAA requires a manned aircraft to trail and observe it. “It’s a redundant practice,” says Mark Contarino, proposal manager and UAS expert for Enterprise Engineering Services, based in Hammonton. “The whole point is to get the UAS up. It’s not to actually have two planes up in the sky.”

Commerical drones can’t take flight until the FAA institutes policies and procedures that govern these issues. Movement toward that goal, however, has been maddeningly slow. It has essentially taken a technology that can sprint like a thoroughbred and shackled it to the starting gate. “The technology is here. It has way outpaced the rules and the regulations by 30 years,” Contarino says.

Accelerated testing would surmount these hurdles, but so far funding has been sporadic. While MAAP has secured $200,000 from the New Jersey Economic Development Agency, no funding has been allocated from the federal government or FAA. The consortium and Congressman LoBiondo are pursuing several initiatives for additional money, but the reality is the testing program is looked at as a revenue-generator, reliant on interested businesses that will pay to use the test site.

Because of the delays, Congress’ deadline to fully integrate commercial drones by fall of 2015 is “significantly behind schedule,” according to a recent audit report. A single full deployment with drones of all sizes is just about impossible. Aviation experts predict a staged rollout, starting with smaller drones in the next two to three years for functions like agriculture spraying, accident investigations, even real estate monitoring. “As the systems get longer endurance and larger,” says David Yoel, CEO of American Aerospace Advisors, which develops UAS aircraft, “the pace will be slower.” Yoel, like others, forecasts another five to 10 years before larger drones will be routinely deployed into complicated airspace.

That will be sobering news for those expecting an instant economic boost in South Jersey. Because the reality is that the region is ideally suited to pick up jobs. Cape May County, for example, offers several advantages for UAS testing: An airport with corridors to reach the Atlantic Ocean without flying over a single home, along with its proximity to both complicated airspace and the FAA’s all-important tech center. “A thousand jobs in Cape May County really moves the needle,” says County Freeholder Will Morey, a private pilot for many decades.

It could help revitalize properties like the Stockton park, which has struggled to develop despite sitting on the campus of the FAA’s tech center. “We think that the park will be an excellent location for some of these laboratories and the companies involved with UAS,” says Ron Esposito, executive director of the park.

But the truth is that private industry is itching to move forward—and its patience will only last so long. “If we think we can take our time and the market will sit and wait for us, it’s not,” says Yoel, whose company is part of the consortium. “The pace of which industries go off shore today is staggering. We’re going to lose this whole industry if we don’t get focused.”

It’s an opportunity that is simply too big for South Jersey to lose. “We’re almost limited by our own creativity,” Congressman LoBiondo says. “I don’t think there’s been an innovation like this in aviation since the dawn of aviation.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 5 August, 2014).
For more info on South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To subscribe to South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To advertise in South Jersey Magazine, click here.