New Jersey’s selection as a national test site for unmanned aircraft will help boost development of an aviation research park that is currently little more than vacant land, officials overseeing the project said Thursday.
Discussions are underway to have the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township serve as the New Jersey headquarters for the unmanned aircraft program, consultant Joseph M. Sheairs Sr. said.
Sheairs said there is a “verbal agreement” to have the aviation park become the headquarters site, largely because of its location next to the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center. The tech center will analyze data collected nationwide from unmanned aircraft, also known as drones.
“I fully expect that the headquarters for the New Jersey team will be located near the tech center,” Sheairs said in an interview with The Press of Atlantic City.
Sheairs made the disclosure after briefing the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park board members about the unmanned aircraft project.
He also said there are talks for the state Economic Development Authority to help fund New Jersey’s testing team, although the amount of money has not yet been decided.
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey took over the aviation research park last year after mismanagement and financial problems halted its development. Formerly known as the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park, the site is related to the FAA’s development of the next generation of satellite-based air traffic control.
The aviation park has had a difficult history since it was proposed in October 2005 as a way to create 2,000 local high-tech jobs. Construction has not started on any of the seven buildings proposed in the complex. At this point, the site mostly consists of vacant property and makeshift dirt roads blocked off by barricades.
However, Ron Esposito, the park’s executive director, said progress is being made on a complicated land lease that is needed for the project to move forward. He anticipates the lease should be completed by the summer. The next step would be for a development agreement to build the park. Esposito declined to speculate on when construction would start.
“There are a lot of pieces that we’re working on,” he said.
During their board meeting Thursday, members of the aviation park expressed optimism that the project will be built. They noted that the proposed tie-in with New Jersey’s drone testing program is a crucial development.
“We’re working to make New Jersey the aviation state of the nation,” said Edward Salmon, the board’s president.
“This is quite exceptional, not only for New Jersey, but for the park,” added Anne Harlan, the board’s vice president.
In December, the FAA selected New Jersey to be among six sites nationwide for commercial testing of drone technology. Warren Grove, a secluded part of the Pine Barrens in Ocean County, is proposed as New Jersey’s test area, Sheairs said. Warren Grove already is used as a practice bombing range for the New Jersey Air National Guard and as a test bed for military drones.
Sheairs stated that Warren Grove still needs formal FAA approval as a site for commercial testing of unmanned aircraft. A meeting with the FAA is scheduled for Feb. 19 in Washington to discuss Warren Grove. However, a decision by the FAA is expected sometime later, Sheairs said.
New Jersey has partnered with Virginia for the unmanned aircraft project. The partnership will link the resources of Virginia Tech and Rutgers University and will include support from the FAA tech center, the sprawling aviation research facility next to Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.
The tech center will collect and analyze data obtained from the drone testing sites nationwide. Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota and Texas were the other states named as test beds. Since 2007, the tech center has had a team of aerospace engineers, computer technicians and other researchers working on how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system.
A study published in March by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems predicts drone technology could add 70,000 jobs and $13.6 billion in economic activity nationwide between 2015 and 2018. The study also predicts 1,353 jobs added in New Jersey by 2017, with $263 million in economic impact.
Pending FAA approval of the Warren Grove site, New Jersey’s testing could begin within six to 12 months, Sheairs said. He stressed that this type of unmanned aircraft is being developed for commercial use, unlike the military drones that serve as a platform for weapons.
Researchers believe that unmanned aerial systems represent the next wave in aviation technology, mostly for use in farming, law enforcement and the academic world.