Two years ago, we urged state officials to impose some order on the wildly growing world of drones.
Towns were enacting their own varying restrictions and bans. The federal government, which has ultimate responsibility for airspace oversight, clearly wasn’t going to come up with rules in time to stop emerging problems.
We’re glad to see the Legislature is nearing passage of a drone-operation law, including prohibiting their use while intoxicated. The rules look sensible and should eventually be enacted.
But a more urgent drone matter has come up — an opportunity to build on South Jersey’s promising drone testing and development.
The White House in late October launched a pilot program to expand commercial drone operations by creating test sites with shared oversight by federal and state officials. More than 75,000 drones already are registered for commercial use, with more than 400,000 expected by 2021.
The Federal Aviation Administration and federal Department of Transportation within a year will choose an expected five to 10 locations nationwide for partnerships to test new drone-inclusive air traffic management networks.
South Jersey is a strong candidate for such a partnership and New Jersey’s officials and federal representatives should focus on putting together the proposal to advance it to this next level of testing unmanned aircraft systems.
This region has a unique advantage — the nation’s premier air transportation system laboratory, the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township.
South Jersey also has a good drone-testing record since the state was chosen by the FAA in 2013 to co-host one of the nation’s six UAS Test Sites.
The following year, the region saw its first drone tests when the N.J. Institute of Technology ran some flights safely over the ocean from the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May. American Aerospace Technologies began drone test flights out of the Cape May County Airport in 2015.
Last year, a test at the Cape May Lewes Ferry facility in Lower Township became “the first FAA-approved drone delivery flight in history,” according to Nevada-based drone service Flirty. It took a box of simulated medical supplies, flew a half-mile out over the Delaware Bay and landed on a barge.
This year, drone tests in South Jersey demonstrated two highly anticipated uses. A drone developed by Rutgers University flew to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, entered the water and maneuvered like a submarine inspecting bridge supports, then surfaced and flew back to base. Then a joint venture between Verizon and American Aerospace used a drone to provide ad hoc cell-phone service for first responders around Belleplain State Forest, a critical capability when disasters wipe out mobile communications.
This seems like the perfect region to develop the necessary systems for tracking and managing low-altitude drones.
The drone regulations that have passed the state Senate and await Assembly action would make it a disorderly persons offense to endanger people or property with a drone, or harm wildlife. Operating a drone under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or interfering with first responders or security at correctional facilities, for example, would be more serious crimes.
These restrictions on civilian use of drones are needed and will surely become law either in the current lame duck session or after the new governor and Legislature take office in January.
New Jersey’s crucial partnership with the federal government on drone systems testing, however, is not at all certain.
Considering its great potential to bring tech companies and jobs to South Jersey, state officials should focus on their proposal now.