Maryland Airport Authority Moves Forward with Autonomous Tech Testing Center

The Potomac Highlands Airport Authority voted unanimously to fund a portion of a feasibility study for the center.

by Elaine Blaisdell, Cumberland Times News, Md. / July 31, 2017
The proposed autonomous technology testing center will live at the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport. Cumberlandairport.com

(TNS) -- WILEY FORD, W.Va. — The Potomac Highlands Airport Authority is moving forward with plans for an autonomous technology testing center at The Greater Cumberland Regional Airport.

The authority voted unanimously Thursday to fund a portion of a feasibility study for the tech center.

“That (request for proposal) will tell us whether this was a really good idea, or rather, we are kind of pipe-dreaming,” said William Atkinson, Appalachian Regional Commission program manager and director of the Maryland Department of Planning’s Western Maryland Regional Office.

Atkinson estimated that the study wouldn’t cost more than $60,000, with ARC funds paying half and the authority paying the remainder.

“This is huge for the area and we could be looked at as a leader in the area,” said Gregg Wolff, chairman of the authority. “Some of us have been on this board a long time and this is what we have been looking for.”

Because the airport is a nonprofit, a building could be constructed to house the tech center and the ground leased back to a company, said Ryan Shaffer, the airport’s manager.

“That’s what makes this work. ARC wouldn’t pay for all this equipment and setting up this center for a business, but they’ll do it for the nonprofit. Then all you guys do is lease the equipment — companies don’t want to buy all that equipment anyhow,” said Atkinson.

Atkinson estimates it would cost about $5 million to build the center, with ARC funding half. The other half would come from the state, officials said.

The project scope was broadened from drones to autonomous technology following a suggestion from someone who specializes in aerospace programming and drones at the Maryland Department of Commerce.

“His suggestion was, ‘Let’s not tie ourselves to drones — let’s make this a center of excellence for autonomous technology,’” said Atkinson. “He felt that if we build it, they would come.”

The tech center could potentially be a part of a proposed industrial park that the authority included in its Airport Layout Plan.

“We may really be on to something there,” said Kevin Clark, an authority member who’s the executive director of the Mineral County Development Authority. “We are leading from the front and that’s exciting.”

Clark has been working with Atkinson to further develop the proposed tech center.

Atkinson also said the project could be expanded to include cybersecurity for autonomous technology.

“Allegany College has a really good cybersecurity program,” he said. “So, one of the things they are going to be looking at is room for expansion in that program into autonomous cybersecurity.”

Local colleges and Frostburg State University are interested in being a part of the project, according to Atkinson. FSU is receiving ARC funding to establish an unmanned aerial vehicle remote sensing training center, Atkinson said.

“Everybody at commerce and the federal thinks that having the players at the community colleges and the university is a huge, big piece of this,” said Atkinson. “That companies would love to have because they’ll have that educational piece along with everything else.”

Terry Page, a consultant with Delta, said he didn’t foresee the Federal Aviation Administration having any issues with the proposed tech center. Page previously said that Saint Mary’s County Regional Airport has a drone testing site.

Atkinson has been in touch with Saint Mary’s County, where the University of Maryland tests drones.

“We coordinated with them, we don’t want to compete with them. They were very helpful in sharing information on what they are doing — what’s been successful and what hasn’t been,” said Atkinson.

©2017 the Cumberland Times News (Cumberland, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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