Maryland has lost its bid to be a Federal Aviation Administration test site for drones, but officials still expect the state to be involved in federal research into how the unmanned aircraft may safely be flown in U.S. airspace.
Virginia was one of six states chosen Monday by the FAA. Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey signed an agreement this year to collaborate on drone research.
As a result, Maryland officials said, personnel and facilities in all three states will play a role in the FAA testing.
"We will be involved, definitely," said Matthew Scassero, who headed the University of Maryland's test site proposal. "To what extent, how much our assets are used versus the ones in Virginia and New Jersey, we won't know that until we actually start getting the work and figure out who's going to do it.
"We would have liked to have gotten the designation, but as long as our people and our infrastructure get used, that's what they're there for," he said.
The state has not released its estimate of the economic impact of being chosen by the FAA as a host site, but Scassero said it would have added few direct jobs.
The Maryland proposal brought together academics from University of Maryland campuses in College Park, Baltimore County and the Eastern Shore with personnel and facilities at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Webster Field in St. Mary's County and Crisfield Airport.
Those people will work together as planned, Scassero said. In addition to the FAA research with Virginia and New Jersey, he said, the facilities will be available for commercial and academic research.
In addition to Virginia, the FAA chose sites in New York, Texas, Nevada, North Dakota and Alaska. Congress has directed the agency to conduct research before it allows the large-scale use of drones for commerce, law enforcement and other purposes.
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.
Research conducted at the six FAA test sites will help the agency develop certification standards and regulations to allow unmanned aircraft to fly safely among manned jets, airplanes and helicopters.
The first site is expected to open in six months. Congress has required the FAA to write intital rules governing the commercial operation of drones by 2015.
Other countries are using drones to dust crops and monitor oil spills. Florida is testing 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 have spoken of using drones to produce footage of natural disasters, police chases and crime scenes. Real estate agents want them to take aerial photographs of properties.
Maryland already 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.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the main industry group, estimated this 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.
After the University of Maryland submitted its test site application, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Virginia Tech and Rutgers University in New Jersey to form a "united joint test team" in the event that any were selected by the FAA.
In a release, FAA said Virginia Tech "plans to conduct [unmanned aircraft system] failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas." The agency said the plan involves test ranges in both Virginia and New Jersey. It did not mention Maryland.
The University of Maryland was one of 25 applicants from 24 states competing to host an FAA test site. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the industry association, called the much-anticipated announcement Monday "an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft."
"From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, [unmanned aircraft systems] can save time, save money, and, most importantly, save lives," he said in a statement.
In choosing the winners, the FAA said it considered "geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk." Together, the agency said, the six sites "achieve cross-country geographic and climatic diversity."
"These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
Huerta, the FAA administrator, said safety "continues to be our first priority."
"We have successfully brought new technology into the nation's aviation system for more than 50 years," he said, "and I have no doubt we will do the same with unmanned aircraft."
Reuters contributed to this article.
FAA names test sites
The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday named six test sites for research into how unmanned aircraft systems may safely be integrated into U.S. airspace:
•University of Alaska
•State of Nevada
•Griffiss International Airport, Rome, N.Y.
•North Dakota Department of Commerce
•Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi
•Virginia TechCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun