Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos created a buzz with his announcement in December that the online retailer would use a fleet of drone-like “octocopters” to deliver packages.

Now, imagine drones patrolling utility lines for problems, spraying and evaluating farmers’ fields, or scanning terrain for a lost Alzheimer’s patient.

Those are among the commercial applications that a newly formed consortium of Mid-Atlantic states and universities envisions to meet a congressional mandate to integrate drones into the national airspace system. The consortium puts the Fredericksburg region at the forefront of a new frontier in business and technology.

Jon Greene, interim director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, outlined the group’s plans and progress recently at a Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Council roundtable held at the University of Mary Washington’s Dahlgren campus.

The Mid-Atlantic consortium is one of six research and test sites selected by the Federal Aviation Administration in December. The others are in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota and Texas.

The Mid-Atlantic group includes Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey, with Virginia Tech heading up the effort, and the University of Maryland and Rutgers University in New Jersey as partners. The Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems, which does research on unmanned vehicles, is at Virginia Tech.

“We have two functions,” Greene told about 50 business, industry and military representatives, “building the unmanned aerial systems industry in the region, and making sure we operate the test site in an efficient, effective and equitable manner.”

THE FAA AND UAVs

The FAA first authorized use of unmanned aircraft in 1990. Since then, the agency has allowed limited use of drones for important missions in the public interest, such as fire fighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border patrol, military training and testing and evaluation.

Drones do border and port surveillance for the Department of Homeland Security, help with scientific research and environmental monitoring, help state universities conduct research and support various other missions for government entities.

They’re being used now in the FAA’s national airspace system under very controlled conditions. Operations can range from ground level to above 50,000 feet, depending on the specific type of aircraft. But drones are now allowed in airspace over major urban areas with a high density of manned aircraft.

There are two ways to get FAA approval: obtaining an experimental airworthiness certificate for private sector (civil) aircraft to do research and development, training and flight demonstrations; and securing a waiver or authorization for public aircraft. Routine operation of drones over densely populated areas is prohibited.

—Federal Aviation Administration

Greene is associate director for Strategic Planning and Development at the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

He says the consortium, which received state funds to get started, intends to work with a broad range of companies, contractors, local governments and research and development sites, including the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren in King George County.

“Dahlgren is not the least of those,” he said. “The relationship between Virginia Tech and Dahlgren allows us to do some things a lot of the other [consortium sites] can’t do.” Virginia Tech and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division have been doing cooperative research for five years.

Greene said the Mid-Atlantic consortium has requested airspace from the FAA.

“We’ll probably be flying sometime this summer, probably July.”

The agency allows limited use of drones in the nation’s airspace, but operating drones over densely populated areas is prohibited.

“We want to minimize risk, to fly in areas where there’s not a lot of traffic, in areas where there are not a lot of people,” Greene said.

Using airspace over parks, local government and other public lands was deemed to be the best option.

Among the spots the consortium has considered are parts of the pine barrens of New Jersey; Maryland’s Eastern Shore; an area south of the restricted airspace around the Dahlgren Navy base; and around the town of Wakefield and Fort Pickett in Southside Virginia.

Some drones have already been flying over parts of Virginia. For example, the Navy last fall prepared an environmental assessment on its plan to increase testing of unmanned aerial, land and underwater systems in its Atlantic Test Ranges.

The ATR’s 1,800-square-mile inner range overlaps Maryland portions of the Chesapeake Bay and parts of Westmoreland, Northumberland and Lancaster counties in Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Greene said the while creating a business model for the Mid-Atlantic test area is challenging, there are many potential applications.

“There are people out there today with sensors and payloads that they want to fly on UAVs, and they think they can do interesting things and make money.”

Greene said he was approached by a faculty member at George Mason University who was doing Alzheimer’s research.

“He said, ‘Can you hook me up with a UAV?’” When the dementia patients wander off and a search is required, “I want to do this with a [drone] to do it faster and cheaper.”

©2014 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)