Matt Scassero, director of the University of Maryland UAS Test Site, discusses the first flight of its Talon 240 drone at Crisfield airport. (Ian Duncan/Baltimore Sun)
The pickup truck speeds down the runway of the airfield here on the Eastern Shore, a small, unmanned aircraft in its payload. And then the aircraft takes flight, banking over the heads of the spectators.
After years of planning, the University of Maryland's drone test facility is open for business.
Unmanned aircraft systems are most familiar to Americans for their use in war to scout, spy and kill. Privacy groups have watched warily as law enforcement has started to experiment with them.
But there is a growing interest among businesses eager to employ them to deliver goods, monitor agriculture and measure environmental conditions, among other applications, and the Federal Aviation Administration is encouraging research into how they might safely be introduced into U.S. airspace.
But strict flight rules bar private companies from flying drones. Matt Scassero, a former Naval aviator who heads the test facility, says its aim is to "give industry a place to go."
Companies will be able to partner with the university to get their projects airborne, Scassero said; plans are being put together to assess fish populations in the Chesapeake Bay, to examine power lines in Southern Maryland and to perform other jobs that humans find too "dirty, dull [or] dangerous."
On Friday, Scassero's team launched a Talon 240 drone — which, with its 20-foot wingspan, looks like an overgrown model airplane — from the Crisfield-Somerset Airport. Before the flight, the aircraft wiggled its wings and tail like a fledgling considering its first leap from the nest.
Scassero, a Naval Academy graduate, narrated the inaugural flight for the assembled dignitaries and reporters. Updates crackled over a walkie-talkie; when word came that the team had hit a test objective, Scassero pumped his fist to himself.
Despite the successful demonstration, would-be drone pilots still face obstacles to getting airborne.
Congress has directed the FAA to develop rules and policies that will allow drones to safely share the skies with manned aircraft. The University of Maryland site, and others like it around the country, are designed to give regulators more information to make their decisions.
For now, each location and unmanned system requires a separate FAA authorization to operate. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore has permission to fly an agricultural research drone at one of two farms it owns, and the test site team will have to submit fresh applications for future projects.
The FAA is considering a rule that would provide more flexibility for those who want to fly small drones at low altitudes. But Michael Toscano, head of a drone industry group, said it might be two years away. Regulations for larger aircraft, such as the one flown by the university on Friday, are likely more distant.
"With any revolutionary or disruptive technology it always outpaces" the regulations, said Toscano, the president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "You don't write laws for things you don't know about."
Privacy concerns are another barrier. Drones can stay aloft for long periods, and can monitor a wide area. The University of Maryland drone beamed pictures of the Bay shore back to a television screen at the airport.
Jeremy Gillula, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said regulators and drone users need to find the right balance. He said universities can play an important role in thinking about the ethics of drone use and training future pilots to behave responsibly.
Under the current flight restrictions, few organizations are flying drones in Maryland. The University of Maryland, College Park and University of Maryland Eastern Shore are the only groups to have applied for authorizations recently, according to a list the FAA released to freedom of information group Muckrock. The Navy and the Maryland National Guard fly some systems in Southern Maryland.
Still, there is great interest in flying and manufacturing unmanned aircraft in Maryland. On Friday, state economic development Secretary Dominick Murray called the potential of the technology "unbelievable."
The state's nascent drone industry includes two main components: the companies that design and make the systems in the Baltimore area — including UAV Solutions, Inc., which makes the Talon — and the facilities to fly them in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
Researchers at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland are working on several sophisticated systems. They recently received two giant MQ-4C Triton aircraft, drones with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 that the Navy wants to use for long-range surveillance missions.
Researchers at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore are looking at how drones can be used to support a concept known as precision agriculture, which involves targeting fertilizer only at the parts of a field that need it. Chris Hartman, one of the researchers, said getting the drone airborne and operating its sensors is only part of the work — the team then needs to figure out how to interpret the data and use it to make farming decisions.