Both the Cape May Airport and Millville Airport are interested in being part of a project to test unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, over the skies of southern New Jersey.
Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey announced the county’s interest after the freeholder meeting Tuesday night. Earlier in the day, Morey attended a congressional hearing in Egg Harbor Township, where the project was discussed.
The Federal Aviation Administration has approved a joint application by New Jersey and Virginia to be one of six national test sites chosen to integrate drones into national airspace plans. An FAA official at the hearing mentioned possible uses, including firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border security, military training, and testing and evaluation.
“We will pursue unmanned aircraft systems for the Cape May Airport,” Morey said while giving a report on several new developments at the airport.
Although owned by the county, the airport is leased to the Delaware River & Bay Authority, and that agency also is interested in the initiative. DRBA Executive Director Scott Green said Wednesday he has been discussing the idea with Morey and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee that held Tuesday’s hearing.
Green said it’s still “very early in the game.” The DRBA, known locally for running the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, also operates the Millville Airport as well as airports in Delaware.
Green said the airfield in Millville and the Cape May Airport, which is actually in Lower Township, could be used for testing of drones, office space, to maintain or store equipment or other aspects of the operation.
“We are always on the lookout for economic development at all our airports, especially economic development that is aviation related. It’s exactly the kind of opportunity we’re looking for,” Green said.
Green said any such project would have to meet two litmus tests: It can’t interfere with general aviation and it must be compatible with communities surrounding the airports.
Jason Galanes, a spokesman for LoBiondo, said the congressman is exploring the possibilities with Morey and the DRBA. Galanes said the first test site will be chosen in June. He noted the partnership is with Virginia, and it is a joint project with Rutgers University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A lot of people are involved in such decisions.
“We don’t know who’s going first. We keep looking at areas in New Jersey that would want to be part of this. We’re encouraged Cape May County wants to be part of this,” Galanes said.
There could be multiple sites. Galanes said the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township is one site, with the Warren Grove area expected to be used since it already hosts military training and has restricted airspace.
Other national sites were chosen by the FAA to present different testing environments. Galanes said Alaska was chosen for its extreme terrain issues. Alaska is lumped with Hawaii and Oregon. The other sites are Nevada, North Dakota, Texas and New York.
Galanes said Cape May’s proximity to water — the ocean and Delaware Bay — could be a strong point. The Cape May Airport was a naval air station in World War II that trained torpedo bombers who practiced on dummy targets on the water. Green agreed the configuration of the Cape could help. The airport covers almost 1,000 acres and has water on three sides.
“They know our facilities are here and we’re ready to handle their business. Anybody interested in the future of airports knows new aviation businesses don’t come along very often,” Green said.
LoBiondo said the testing could provide “significant economic opportunities” for the aviation field, particularly in southern New Jersey.
“A years-long effort has been spent on putting forth the strongest application — including forming a solid working partnership with Virginia — to ensure the FAA recognized our existing assets for this project. I appreciate Governor (Chris) Christie’s unwavering support throughout the process as well as the efforts of my congressional colleagues and those working on the ground in South Jersey on our proposal,” LoBiondo said.
The first test site is expected to be operational within 180 days. The sites are scheduled to operate until February 2017.
The Hughes center will be a central clearinghouse to collect data from each of the six test sites and work to integrate drones into national airspace plans. This was mandated by the 2012 FAA Authorization Act that LoBiondo pushed for.
LoBiondo said there will be measures to protect the privacy of surrounding residents and commercial businesses. He also noted Congress continues to evaluate “further legislative options” to address civil liberty questions. Some are concerned about the potential misuses of drones. The FAA still needs to develop regulations to control commercial uses of drones.
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