EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Thousands of unmanned aircraft will take flight within the next five years as the latest technology in commercial aviation is used for farming, protecting the U.S. border and fighting crime, a top government official predicted Tuesday.

For the past two decades, the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the limited use of unmanned aircraft — commonly known as drones — but now it is preparing to embark on a full-fledged program to let them fly commercially, said Michael Whitaker, the agency’s deputy administrator.

“These include firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border security, military training, and testing and evaluation,” Whitaker said of the array of uses.

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Whitaker and other industry experts touted drone technology during a congressional hearing that examined the future of aviation, including the next generation of satellite-based air traffic control systems.

While the FAA appears eager to integrate drone aircraft into the nation’s commercial airspace, it still must develop the complex set of regulations to control their use and make sure they operate safely.

Whitaker said the regulations for small unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds are expected to be ready late this year for public comment. He estimated that commercial operations could begin in 2015, depending on the regulations becoming final.

Ben Gielow, a representative of the unmanned aircraft industry, predicted the technology will create tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic development. However, he complained that the FAA has moved too slowly during the rule-making process, holding up the mass use of a technology he believes will revolutionize aviation.

“Before these jobs and economic impact become a reality, the FAA must write the safety regulations to integrate these systems,” said Gielow, general counsel and senior government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Gielow showed up at the congressional hearing holding a small unmanned aircraft that looked like it had been borrowed from a “Star Wars” movie set. He explained that a model airplane enthusiast could fly the futuristic craft, for recreation, at a local field or airport without getting FAA approval. However, if a farmer wanted to use that same drone aircraft for commercial purposes, such as spraying his crops, the FAA currently would not allow it, he noted.

Gielow hopes the FAA will be prodded into quickly completing the regulations by an administrative law judge’s ruling last week. The judge found the FAA has no authority to regulate unmanned aircraft because it has not yet developed the rules to govern their use.

Whitaker said the FAA plans to appeal the ruling and would issue an emergency regulation if necessary. In the meantime, the FAA is far enough through the process that an estimated 7,500 unmanned aircraft should take to the skies within five years, he said.

In December, New Jersey was selected among six national test sites for drone aircraft. The FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township will serve as a central clearinghouse for the collection and analyses of data from the national testing sites.

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, held Tuesday’s congressional hearing at the Hughes center to emphasize its importance for the development of commercial drones, as well as the FAA’s next generation of air traffic control, commonly called NextGen. The Hughes center, the FAA’s primary scientific site for aviation safety, will be a major platform for both the NextGen and unmanned aircraft programs.

“I have been fortunate to represent the Tech Center during my time in Congress,” LoBiondo said in his opening statement. “While I haven’t always been the chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, I have always been a strong supporter of the Tech Center and its work force. And I believe in the work that goes on here. It improves the overall operation of our aviation system, but more importantly, it saves lives.”

Whitaker said facets of the $40 billion NextGen program are well under way as the FAA converts the nation’s air traffic control system from the old, radar-based technology to satellites. New hardware and software upgrades for NextGen are expected to be finished in 12 to 18 months, he noted.

Different elements of the NextGen program will continue to be rolled out through 2025. It is already being used to guide flights at the Phoenix airport, Whitaker said.

NextGen, though, has encountered difficulties. Lawmakers and industry officials have complained that the FAA has not moved fast enough to introduce the technology. LoBiondo refrained from criticizing the FAA during his hearing, but he urged the agency to capitalize on the Hughes center for the NextGen program.

“Given the considerable challenges with the ongoing transition to NextGen, we must examine every available resource here at the Tech Center and ensure they are being adequately utilized, especially the world-class expertise of the Tech Center people,” he said.

An aviation research park that would serve as a local offshoot of the NextGen program is proposed for land next to the Hughes center. The park formerly was stalled by funding problems and mismanagement, but The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey took control of the project last fall and has stabilized it. Construction plans continue for the site, now known as the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park.

“They are really committed to this project,” LoBiondo said of Stockton’s involvement.

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