CAPE MAY — New Jersey’s first drone test flights have been delayed until fall to avoid the possibility of midair collisions with some other flying objects — migratory shorebirds protected by federal law.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology had originally planned to begin unmanned flights in July at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, but has pushed back the launch date to November.
However, talks have begun about the possibility of also conducting drone tests at the Cape May Airport beginning in October, although officials concede that would be an ambitious schedule.
Michael Chumer, the NJIT professor overseeing the tests, explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service blocked flights over the summer at the Coast Guard center to protect the piping plover and red knot birds during their annual trek to New Jersey coastal areas.
“Fish and Wildlife thought that the testing may be a little too close to the piping plover and red knot, both threatened species, so they imposed seasonal restrictions,” Chumer said in an interview Monday.
NJIT has now been given permission to conduct test flights at the Coast Guard center between Nov. 1 and March 15. Those dates do not conflict with the red knots’ spring stop-over at the Delaware Bay or the summer nesting of piping plovers on New Jersey beaches.
Chumer said NJIT was unable to persuade the Fish and Wildlife Service that the drones would not be a danger to the plovers or red knots by keeping the flights away from where the birds congregate. The overriding concern among federal wildlife officials was the potential for midair collisions between the drones and birds, but Chumer characterized that possibility as remote.
Red knots arrive at the Delaware Bay each spring during their annual migration from South America to their arctic breeding grounds. They fuel up for their trips by feasting on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. Cape May County’s beaches are a popular summer nesting site for the piping plovers. The birds are given protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, as well as New Jersey law.
“We didn’t think about this at the onset,” Chumer said of the possibility that federal officials would intervene to protect the birds.
With the Coast Guard center considered off-limits until November, discussions have shifted to the possibility of using the Cape May Airport in Lower Township for drone flights starting in October. NJIT has been talking to Cape May County officials and the Delaware River & Bay Authority, the airport operator.
“I think late October is possible, but it’s definitely aggressive. Our attitude is to set a strong goal,” Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey said of the proposed airport test flights.
The airport has not yet received Federal Aviation Administration approvals for drone tests. Approvals are already in place for the Coast Guard center for November. From the Coast Guard base, the NJIT has permission to fly drones as far as 14.5 nautical miles out over the ocean.
Chumer noted that talks continue about the flight pattern the drones would take over Cape May County after lifting off from the airport. He said the idea is to fly them over county land, avoiding private property, while heading out over the bay and ocean for tests.
“It gives us a huge airspace where we can conduct operations,” Chumer said.
Morey, a private pilot and aviation advocate, regards drone technology as an emerging industry that could create jobs and stimulate economic development at the airport and the surrounding area. In turn, there could be a ripple effect benefiting the county’s retail, shopping and dining sectors, he said.
“I think the aspects of that are good jobs, good year-round jobs,” Morey said.
NJIT, the first New Jersey college granted approval to test drones, will work with the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and the state Office of Emergency Management to develop the technology for communications during storms or other catastrophic events. Chumer said the flights will also include weather testing and the possibility of using drones to assess damage caused by storms.
Drones are more closely associated with the military, but the technology is also being eyed for an array of civilian and commercial uses, such as communications, law enforcement, agriculture, fighting wildfires and photography.
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