By Matthew Hay Brown
COLLEGE PARK — University of Maryland officials on Tuesday announced the launch of a new test site to study how drones may coexist with jets, helicopters and other air traffic in U.S. airspace.
The long-planned site is to be based near Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, long a key research site for the Navy. It will be managed by the A. James Clark School of Engineering at College Park.
"With [Pax River] serving as a premier facility for research, development, testing, and evaluation, our region is already a hub for aviation innovation," Rep. Steny Hoyer, whose district includes the university and the test site, said in a statement. "Today's launch of the UAS Test Site will put Southern Maryland at the forefront of integrating unmanned autonomous systems into our national airspace."
Maryland lost its bid last year to host a Federal Aviation Administration test site for drones, but officials still expect the state to be involved in federal research. Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, which all competed to host one of the six sites nationwide, signed an agreement before the winners were announced to collaborate on any such research. Virginia was one of the states chosen.
The Maryland test site brings together academics from the University of Maryland campuses in College Park, Baltimore County and the Eastern Shore with personnel and facilities at Pax River, Webster Field in St. Mary's County and Crisfield Airport.
"Our existing relationship with the University of Maryland serves as the foundation of this new test site," Vice Adm. David Dunaway, commander of Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River, said in a statement. "The sharing of human capital and expertise from the university, government, and industry will be a conduit for technology transfer, and the overall betterment of national security."
In addition to the FAA research with Virginia and New Jersey, officials say, the facilities will be available for commercial and academic research.
Drones, best known for their use in war, are expected to transform American life in the coming decades. The FAA has issued more than 1,400 permits for unmanned aircraft since 2007, mainly to police departments and civilian federal agencies. The agency estimates that the number of small commercial drones will grow to 7,500 within five years.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the main industry group, estimated last year that drones would add 2,500 jobs and $2 billion to the Maryland economy by 2025 — part of a 100,000-job, $82 billion impact nationwide.
Florida has tested a system that can spot mosquito larvae in difficult-to-reach mangrove trees. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has described plans to use unmanned aircraft to deliver orders — just as the U.S. military has shipped cargo to troops in Afghanistan.
News organizations see them producing footage, and real estate agents want them to take aerial photographs of properties.
Maryland has established itself as a center of the growing industry. The state is home to several manufacturers. The University of Maryland, working closely with the Navy and NASA, is developing vehicles. And the military has long tested drones at Pax River.
University officials said the new site would serve as a catalyst for more research and development.