Atlantic City International Airport is involved in New Jersey's bid to become one of six drone testing sites across the country in an effort that could produce millions in economic impact for the state.
New Jersey has partnered with Virginia in the highly competitive process initiated by a federal call for proposals by the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year. Fifty organizations from 37 states indicated intent to apply, according to the FAA.
"It's a highly competitive process, so there's not much I'm able to say. This could very well be a big deal," South Jersey Transportation Authority acting Executive Director Sam Donelson said. "It could lead to significant economic development for New Jersey - specifically New Jersey and specifically the airport."
Earlier this month, the SJTA approved a resolution to execute a "teaming agreement" required as part of the bi-state application. According to the resolution, SJTA is one of more than 30 team members across the two states. The team members can be a mix of academic, public and private entities likely involving major aviation firms whose involvement wouldn't be disclosed until an award is made.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State College is serving as the primary applicant. The Attorney General's Office of New Jersey has approved the teaming agreement for the state, according to SJTA documents. Rutgers University is the lead applicant in New Jersey, officials said.
"The test site program offers an important opportunity for Rutgers to be involved in an aviation innovation project that aligns with our engineering research strengths," said Thomas Farris, dean of the Rutgers University School of Engineering.
The Roanoke (Va.) Times has reported that if the bid is successful the range would not be located at or near Virginia Tech. Exactly where it might be located hasn't been disclosed, but SJTA's recent action suggests there's a possibility for a test range to be located in the region.
"As owner of the Atlantic City International Airport, the South Jersey Transportation Authority offers a unique airport that can serve as a test site for this emerging industry," the recently approved SJTA resolution states.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is currently working with the SJTA on an agreement allowing the New York City-based authority to operate the airport with an option to purchase in the future.
In February, the FAA issued a screening information request, equivalent to a request for proposals, for parties interested in hosting the ranges that will help test remotely flown aerial vehicles and determine what certification and navigation requirements need to be established.
The move was spurred by 2012 legislation that provided the FAA with $63.4 billion over four years, ending a struggle for long-term funding that previously resulted in furloughs for employees at the William. J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township. The bill also required that drones have expanded access to the national airspace by September 2015.
The FAA currently restricts drone use to designated blocks of military airspace, border patrols and a mix of approved public agencies and private partners.
Les Dorr, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the FAA, said the administration expects to select the sites by the end of the year.
"The purpose of selecting the sites is to give us the data to determine what safe integration will look like," Dorr said. "What that will look like, we don't know. It probably will not mean you can fly whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want."
Officials in South Jersey have been quiet about the specifics of the application other than to say the economic impact to the state and the region could be significant if the Virginia-New Jersey application is successful. No one would address what specifically led to the agreement between Virginia and New Jersey or how Virginia Tech was chosen as the lead agency.
According to information released on the FAA's website as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests, Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University are among dozens of federal, state and local agencies that held certificates of authorization to operate unmanned aircraft between November 2006 and June 30, 2011. No entities based in New Jersey appear on the list.
Research and development of unmanned aerial systems, however, is not entirely new to the region. The William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, the nation's only federal lab for air transportation systems, has had a team of engineers, computer scientists and aerospace engineers working on how to safely integrate unmanned systems into the national airspace system since 2007.
Some envision unmanned vehicles acting as border patrol or used for environmental applications such a crop dusting. The vehicles have already been used in overseas combat.
The FAA said it's too early to predict how the additional test sites might drive additional work to the tech center, but it's anticipated that the sites will be an additional data resource for the administration.
Exactly what impact a successful bid might have isn't entirely clear, but officials say it's likely that the areas chosen will see an increase in jobs and could potentially attract private companies that would be part of the research efforts and spur manufacturing jobs.
A study published in March by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems predicts the systems could add 70,000 jobs and $13.6 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2018. The study predicts 1,353 jobs added in New Jersey by 2017 with a $263 million economic impact.
That could be especially good news for the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township that has struggled for years to land committed tenants prior to the construction of the first of seven planned buildings.
"We're extremely happy to be part of the response," NextGen park Executive Director Ron Esposito said. "At the end of the day, if New Jersey is successful, the likelihood of a significant economic impact is very strong."
Contact Jennifer Bogdan:
Follow Jennifer Bogdan on Twitter @ACPressJennifer