Residents of the small, rural Ocean County community of Warren Grove, who have worried for years about fighter jets that use the nearby Warren Grove Gunnery Range, now are concerned about upcoming commercial drone activity.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced in December it had selected New Jersey as one of six sites across the country for commercial testing of drone technology. Last month it was announced that, pending FAA approval, commercial drone testing at the Warren Grove range could be under way within six to 12 months.
Peter Ferwerda, who lives in the Warren Grove section of Little Egg Harbor Township, said he would ask that every measure be taken to protect the health and safety of residents who live near the range. Ferwerda said he would also expect that the drones would be operated in a manner so there is no spying on individuals.
“We just want to know that we are going to have good neighbors,” he said.
Living in Warren Grove provides a sense of privacy that drones could destroy, he said. But at the same time, he said he understands that the equipment needs to be tested.
“I want to know that if I’m sunbathing in the summertime or my wife or daughters are outside, we don’t have any strange eyes looking at us. The drones have cameras and the cameras have someone watching,” he said.
In December, the FAA said a written plan must be in place for data collecting at drone-testing sites; it is also requiring an annual review of privacy practices involving the public. There may be additional action from Congress apart from privacy guidelines for each drone-testing site, officials said.
The 9,000-acre Warren Grove range touches Little Egg Harbor, Stafford and Barnegat townships.
Stretching across Burlington County and into southern Ocean County, the facility has existed since the early 1960s. It has served as a practice bombing range for the New Jersey Air National Guard and as a test site for military drones in recent years.
There have been problems during the past 15 years.
In 1999 and 2001, fires scorched more than 13,000 acres when dummy bombs were dropped.
During a nighttime training mission in 2004, an intermediate school in Little Egg Harbor Township was hit by rounds from an F-16 fighter jet when a weapon accidentally discharged.
And in 2007, a flare fired over the range from a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16 started a fire that burned about 18,000 acres and evacuated about 2,500 homes in nearby towns.
U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-2nd, who worked to bring the testing to the region, stresses that the drone under development has nothing to do with the military and is strictly domestic.
“The whole idea behind this is that we have this amazing technology that could produce huge benefits in terms of lives and cost savings, and we needed to find a way to safely and securely integrate (unmanned aerial vehicles) into domestic air space,” LoBiondo said.
LoBiondo said the restricted air space used for training missions at Warren Grove Gunnery Range and its location near Atlantic City International Airport made it a very advantageous and unique location for commercial drone testing. New Jersey’s selection as a drone testing site came through a joint application with Virginia that would include research support from the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center at the airport in Egg Harbor Township.
But that restricted air space at Warren Grove range has caused headaches and concern for residents such as David Nothstein. The F16s and A10s that fly along South Shore Drive, where Nothstein has lived for the past 22 years, have been a terrifying nuisance, he said. Although drones would be smaller and quieter, he said he doesn’t want them, either.
“I used to call the range to complain, and the NCO would say they have the right to be there. They occasionally would fly so low that the trees move right near the houses. This could happen any time of the day,” he said.
Now, with discussion that commercial drone testing is next for the range, Nothstein said, he is frustrated and has had enough.
“They’re not as bad as the fighter jets out there. With the drones you do have a longer, whiny noise,” Nothstein said of the military drones that have been tested at the range since as early as 2009. “You can see them way up there about 1,000 feet. They don’t look like a big fighter jet or a small plane. They look like they have about a 6-foot wing span.”
Nothstein’s concerns about the commercial training that could begin later this year center around privacy, he said.
“Are these drones going to want to look at the woods? No. They’re going to want to look at houses out here. I wouldn’t be surprised if our houses are going to be used as practice surveillance targets. Commercial drones can’t land FedEx packages in the woods,” Nothstein said.
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