Drones could put Maryland’s Delmarva Peninsula on cutting edge
By Kelly Powers
Oct 20, 2019 | 4:07 PM
The view from above: A year with The Baltimore Sun's drone. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun video)
With elevations at sea level and open fields stretching from small towns to shoreline, the Delmarva Peninsula is defined by its paced population and rural environment.
Elements like these keep much of the region laid-back, quiet and unimpeded.
For one rising industry, that could prove a powerful asset.
Set to break ground this fall, the Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport is bringing a Drone Center for Innovation to its campus. With potential for a foothold in the growing industry of unmanned vehicles, the excitement is palpable.
"There's an opportunity here for these three states to be the epicenter of autonomous systems testing," said Sentinel Robotic Solutions CEO Peter Bale. "Salisbury is uniquely situated demographically for exit and entry corridors over the water and different areas of sparsely populated environment around the airfield."
Bale's industry experience covers over 20 years.
Thousands of miles from his days playing with remote-control planes as a child in Australia, Bale came to the United States in 2004, working for large companies like Boeing and others before starting his own ground-air-water robotic operations company on the Eastern Shore in 2012.
With private clients, as well as working with the U.S. government, Sentinel Robotic Solutions has operated the runway at Virginia's NASA Wallops Flight Facility for about three years. The recent investment in the Salisbury center will soon stretch his unmanned systems consulting company farther north.
"Why would an Australian stay here?" Bale said jokingly, having been in contact with officials around the peninsula for years. "It's because I see the vision of what this area will be. Not can — will. It's just time, and we're very patient.
"I've waited 15 years for this opportunity."
Job opportunities and innovation
Sitting in her office tucked above the Salisbury's only terminal, notes and sheets of paper spread across her desk, airport manager Dawn Veatch's face lit up when she discussed the incoming drone center at her airfield.
"The potential to bring in some manufacturers here is huge," Veatch said. "We've had dialogue with four companies who have already been out to look at our facility and talk about options. It's really exciting to think that we could be a huge drone facility and operational point."
The manager said her projects are on schedule, accepting a $100,000 grant from the state in August and awaiting FAA-approval within the fall on her airport master plan.
The 8,000-square-foot facility's construction is slated to take shape by summer 2020.
"It creates jobs. It creates innovation," said the manager with over 30 years of federal aviation experience who took Wicomico County's top aviation administrator job in 2017. "And every job that's created by an industry moving here has a domino effect."
Bale said jobs with unmanned vehicles come in at a wide range of variety and skill levels.
"It's not all four-year degree folks. Operators need maintenance folks, need folks to go and fly all these things. So there's a good mix," the CEO said. "You still need the Ph.D.s ... and the high-end engineers to do all the development software, but from the operator base, there are a lot of good opportunities coming to this industry."
The center will likely focus on commercial testing and certification, as well as potential training opportunities with local institutions — a build-it-and-they-will-come mindset, according to Weston Young, Wicomico County assistant director of administration.
"Once we get that first facility, we are anticipating many will follow suit," Young said, citing potential partnerships with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Salisbury University and Wor-Wic Community College, as well as private companies that have reportedly shown interest.
"So this is a huge deal because the jobs that would be generated for this sort of a facility would be very well-paying jobs," he said.
Ruth Baker, dean of continuing education and workforce development at Wor-Wic, is eager to see the drone center up and running.
"We're always driven by the needs of the industry," Baker said, having worked with Bale for over a decade. "So when it becomes clear that there's a facility, there's job opportunities, then what we typically do as an institution is meet with the industry leaders and start talking."
Baker said she looks forward to seeing Salisbury on the cutting edge.
"I don't think there is any question in anybody's mind that this is an area that's only going to grow," she said. "We definitely want to be part of that progress."
Bale and John Robinson, the company's chief operating officer, also said they expect clients drawn to the center to bring economic impact with them.
"We're waiting for the next steps of the hangar, and this time next year will be a different picture for Salisbury," Bale added, "with the center up and running, customers coming and staying, building, renting cars, buying food, all the things that they bring when they come."
He expects the region to grow as the industry does.
"The 60,000-foot vision for me is, how do we grow this area?" Bale said.
"The Future is unmanned"
Bale believes the country overall is at an intersection similar to the horse and buggy, and automotive trade — only with autonomous vehicles.
"It's not the big, bad, scary autonomous system. It's everywhere around you now," he said. "It's the new car you buy, (it) wants to self park or wants to keep you on the road. . . . A lot of folks are scared of autonomous aircraft; most of your aircraft now that you're sitting in, flying from here to Florida, is 94-90% autonomous.
"This is just the next step of evolution."
UPS said on Oct. 1 that it has won government approval to run a drone airline, a first for a U.S. company, and it plans to expand deliveries on hospital campuses and eventually other industries.
Even before getting the airline designation, UPS Flight Forward, as the subsidiary is called, has operated over 1,000 flights at Wake Forest University's medical center in Raleigh, North Carolina, as reported by USA TODAY.
Young echoed similar sentiment toward the future of the drone industry, though he expects people may have a difficult time accepting unmanned aircraft at first.
Bale stressed the possibilities in existing industries on the Shore.
"I'm talking about automation in chickenhouses for example," Bale said. "It's not just drones, there's a technology core here. Just look where they're predicting this industry hopefully in the next decade — it's a multibillion-dollar industry."
The officials said Salisbury's center could see anything from air taxis to crop dusters or fire suppression, as they look to make the space a "commercially viable UAS operation."
Robinson agreed the world of unmanned vehicles is on the cusp of major growth.
“It’s a very positive industry to be in at this stage — this could be huge,” said the former U.S. Navy captain. “(Let’s) see and build an industry base so our kids and their generations can have a place to stay local, work and grow, have high-paying, beneficial jobs here on the Shore.”