How New Jersey is trying to become the ‘Silicon Valley’ for the commercial drone industry

In a quiet corner of South Jersey, in a hangar built for the Second World War and stacked with history, a tech company hopes to help build the future.

Luftronix, a startup working on navigation systems for small drones, has rented space in historic Hangar 1, the home of the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum at the Cape May County Airport. In a corner of the cavernous museum, the company plans to test and demonstrate a system using drones to inspect aircraft.

There among the museum’s collection of fighter jets, military planes and more is a de Havilland DHC-4 Caribou, a large-scale cargo plane leased by the county from the nearby Penn Turbo Aviation Inc. for the tests. Using a navigation system that allows it operate in areas without GPS, such as inside the hangar, the small multi-rotor drone glides slowly over the plane, mapping it and then inspecting it, according to Denise Spell, a spokeswoman for the company. This could be part of routine maintenance, or a search for damage after a lightning strike, a process she said can take hours.

Luftronix has been looking for somewhere to test and demonstrate their systems, including potential locations in France and Poland, Spell said.

“We were looking for a home where we could do this long term. We needed an aircraft, and we needed space,” she said. They found both in Cape May County. Over five days in February the company demonstrated the process to representatives of airlines, government officials and other companies, she said, although she declined to identify which companies, because they have not yet signed any contracts.

Luftronix is the second drone company to get involved at the county airport, but if Cape May County officials get their way, they will be far from the last. County officials see a bright future in drones – or as many prefer, UAS or unmanned aerial systems – and they’re doing their best to make the county airport part of that future.

Carole Mattessich, Cape May County’s economic development coordinator, has been trying hard to make a welcoming home for up-and-coming UAS companies, including regular innovation meetings and the creation of what she’s calling an incubation area, offering space to give new companies a chance to grow, while providing the structure that could allow them to draw investors. The county has also launched an annual UAS conference, with the second, held last October, focused on the business side of the new technology.

Go drones, and grow rich in the future

Tourism rules Cape May County’s economy, and most economic development work has aimed at either drawing more visitors to the shore, or extending the tourism season beyond the summer. A county report last year found that visitors spent more than $6 billion in Cape May County in 2015, making up 65 percent of the county’s economy. But it remains a seasonal business, and aside from the fishing industry, the hospital and the county itself, most jobs on the Jersey Cape depend on it in some way. That means a big spike in unemployment each winter, and a report published by NJ.com in 2015 put Cape May County’s unemployment at 11.5 percent, the highest in the state.

Mattessich hopes drones will be one way of improving those numbers. She and other county officials see high-paying tech jobs coming to the county, if they can make the area attractive enough to the new industry.

“That will mean more available income and a draw for young people to start coming back to the county after they graduate from college,” she said. She looked to Silicon Valley for inspiration, with a view to create an innovative community where companies interact and build on each other’s success.

Freeholder Will Morey, member of the county’s governing body and a licensed pilot, said the county expects to offer interim space for their tech incubator within the next couple of months, with plans to demolish a huge, out-of-use light industrial building next year and replace it with a permanent home for the project soon after that. Other airports are also looking at drone projects, but Morey said “Cape May County is probably as active or more active than anywhere else in the state.”As far as Luftronix goes, it seems to be working. Cape May County is the first site in the United States for the company, and Spell says they eventually want to put their headquarters and testing facility at the county airport.

“It really makes it very attractive for a company like ours, and you know, Cape May County is a beautiful place to be,” said Spell.

Proponents also cite the county’s proximity to the FAA’s William J. Hughes Tech Center in Atlantic County as another plus for a Cape May County location for an industry still in its infancy, both in terms of the technology and the rules that will eventually govern it. And county government continues to press the matter.

Last month, the county announced it had received authorization from the FAA to operate drones in an 800-mile airspace around the airport, an area that extends into Cumberland and Atlantic counties and across the Delaware Bay almost to Lewes.

Morey described that as an important step, but perhaps not as important as creating a tech-friendly community, and help that community of innovators find the money to fly.”One thing that’s going to make it attractive is to start developing an investor pool. We’re hoping to establish those relationships, to work with the investor community, and bring awareness to what’s going on in Cape May County,” he said.

Multiple uses

The first drone tests in the county were performed by American Aerospace Technologies of Conshohocken, Pa. They started with a flight from an unused helicopter landing pad at the Coast Guard base in Cape May, according to David Yoel, the company CEO, and since then have moved operations to the county airport for four more flights. Before that, they would travel to remote locations like southwest New Mexico to fly without risk of violating FAA rules, which prohibit flying over people or populated areas.

“We were having to travel to the far reaches of the country to really remote locations in order to be able to fly,” Yoel said. South Jersey is far more convenient for his crew.

While there’s no desert in Cape May County, there are wide swaths of protected wetlands with no houses or people. And there is the far larger area of the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay.”We were able to take off and land in New Jersey and fly offshore, with no population risk,” he said.The company has a truck which transports the drone and includes a cockpit for its operation.”We take it to the airport, set it up, put it together, check it out and then we fly it,” he said.While Luftronix is testing tiny drones that can fly inside a hangar, American Aerospace is working on a much larger scale. The drone they’re testing in Cape May County has a 17-foot fixed wingspan and can stay in the air for 12 to 16 hours, although their longest test so far has been about five hours, he said. The research they’ve been doing in Cape May County will help operate the flight system in the future.

According to Morey, the test flights in the county have been line-of-sight so far, meaning someone is watching the entire flight. That can mean observers stationed along the flight path, in communication with the operator, or a spotter plane following the drone. But he expects to see the tests soon move beyond line of sight, relying on instruments and video.

Yoel sees the technology being used in support of first responders, spotting fish for the commercial fleet, inspecting utility lines from the air, and helping with other projects.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going to be out there flying them for fun,” said Yoel.In October, working with Verizon, the company tested what amounted to a drone-based cell tower, Yoel said. Next up is a planned large scale exercise in April, working with local emergency responders, to test providing communications support after a disaster, and to test using the drone’s mapping sensors to help after a disaster strikes.

“We could help emergency responders identify where people need help, and how to get there,” he said.

In October, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey coast hard. The barrier island towns throughout the county were cut off, and the Jersey Cape got off easy compared to shore resorts farther north. According to Yoel, about a quarter of the cell towers were knocked out by the storm, so a drone-mounted tower could make a big difference in post-disaster communication.

For now, all this is only in the testing phase. It could be about a year before the emergency response element moves beyond testing and can be deployed in a real situation, he said, and perhaps five years for other applications, especially those in remote areas, such as inspecting crops or pipelines far from towns and cities.

“We’re eager for the day that drones are approved for routine operations. We didn’t expect it to take this long,” he said.

Yoel expects it will be far, far longer before your Amazon order bombs in by drone. That involved far more complicated operations, within population centers, and in order to make economic sense, they would have to be operated by computer. If there is a pilot sitting somewhere flying the thing, you may as well just use the trucks you already have and pay a driver. But he said for now it’s the FAA’s rules that are slowing things down, rather than the advancements in technology.

Not everyone welcomes drones

In addition to Cape May County government, UAS industries have a vocal and influential advocate in U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, who heads a House subcommittee on aviation, and sees tremendous economic potential in drone industries.

But after American Aerospace Technologies’ tests were announced, some residents spoke against an expanded drone presence. Some raised privacy and safety concerns to the Board of Freeholders, and pushed for local action to keep drones out of their skies.

In Ocean City, an ordinance banned drones around the city’s small airport, effectively keeping private drone operators from flying almost anywhere on the island. That ordinance included a sunset provision, which was reached last September, so according to Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen, the community now falls under the FAA rules. In 2015, the city of Cape May eyed a similar ordinance.

Some objections have been more direct. On Sept. 26, a Lower Township man fired a shotgun at a private drone that had flown over his house. The remote-controlled helicopter drone was said to be worth more than $500. The man later pleaded guilty to criminal mischief.

Similar private drones, most mounted with cameras, have become a common sight in the summer, flying over beaches, and sometimes capturing spectacular images of local events like Wildwood’s annual polar plunge.

Meanwhile, according to Morey, the technology incubators at the airport aren’t limited to flying drones.

“I don’t think it’s limited to that, but that’s the focus. When we talk about unmanned, there are unmanned ground vehicles, unmanned water vehicles. Rutgers brought down an underwater drone, that comes back up to the surface and then flies away,” he said.

Set at the north end of Lower Township between the commercial hub of Rio Grande in Middle Township and the residential stretch of Lower known locally as The Villas, the Cape May County airport caters to private pilots. It has two runways, no tower, a diner, and extensive area that has been put to a variety of light industrial use.

For years, local officials struggled to draw business back to the airport, with mixed success. That seems to have changed recently, with new businesses flocking to the airport, including the successful and rapidly expanding Cape May Brewing Company, and millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure improvements underway.

The airport began as a pilot training center in World War II, and was leased to the county as a civilian airport after the war. In 1999, the two-state Delaware River and Bay Authority took over operation of the airport. Formed to oversee the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the DRBA also operates the Cape May-Lewes ferry and several other airports in Delaware and New Jersey.

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