EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — As the number of drones taking flight continues to grow, so does the role of the William J. Hughes Technical Center in keeping airports safe from the unmanned radio-controlled helicopters.
Use of the drones with cameras has risen as the cost of the devices has dropped. Cheaper drones are leading to new incidents throughout the country and South Jersey — on the ground and in the air.
A number of federal agencies have come together at the more than 500-acre center to test a drone detection system that officials hope will keep commercial airspace safe from personal drones. Each month, the Federal Aviation Administration receives more than 100 reports from pilots and others who spot what appears to be an unmanned aircraft flying close to an airport or a manned airplane.
“The explosive growth of the unmanned aircraft industry makes evaluating detection technologies an urgent priority,” said Marke “Hoot” Gibson, the Federal Aviation Administration’s senior adviser on unmanned small aircraft integration. “This research is totally aimed at keeping our skies safe, which is our No. 1 mission.”
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Roman Isaryk, a drone enthusiast from Little Egg Harbor Township, said he has no problem with what the federal government is doing.
“I don’t think that the government is going too far,” said Isaryk, 44, as he flew his drone at the township park. “The problem is the people that are flying too close to airplanes; those are the people that are causing this issue. It’s people like that who make it harder for us.”
The system being tested at the center employs radio frequency sensors at strategic locations around an airport. The system then is able to detect the location of the drones and the operator, allowing authorities to identify them and deal with potential issues. Federal law mandates a 5-mile no-fly zone around airports.
Over the past year, there have been several high-profile incidents in the area that have shown the need for regulations. In August, a football scrimmage between Ocean City and Middle Township high schools was halted when a drone hovering overhead came within yards of players' heads. The problems have gotten so bad that both Long Beach Township and Ocean City have adopted ordinances regulating the devices.
In the coming months, engineers from the FAA, Department of Homeland Security, CACI International and the University of Maryland will work together to compile the data for a final report by August.
“SkyTracker successfully identified, detected and tracked unmanned aircraft systems in flight, and precisely located drone ground operators, all without interfering with airport ground operations,” said John Mengucci, CACI’s chief operating officer and president of U.S. operations. “We are very proud to partner with the FAA and DHS to help ensure national airspace safety from the escalating threat.”
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Atlantic City International has had five incidents of pilots detecting unmanned aircraft while flying in the area, according to the most recent FAA report, released in August. Around the country, pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, from 238 sightings in 2014 to more than 650 by Aug. 9 of last year, according to the most recent data available.
“There are a couple of us in the township that makes sure that we are following the rules,” Isaryk said. “No matter what, safety is the No. 1 priority. There are rules against flying over large groups of people. I make sure I follow all of the rules when I use mine. You have to respect people’s right to privacy.”
While the government is making progress in regulating drones, Scott Deforge, a 37-year-old drone owner from Little Egg, said more has to be done. Late last year, the FAA required all drones to be registered. Federal officials said at the time that the registry allows officials to educate users on the federal laws regarding unmanned aircraft.
“The rules at this point are still very broad,” Deforge said as he prepared to fly his drone. “I just would like to see the rules a little clearer.”