Drone advances give N.J. hopes of soaring economy

A DJI Phantom drone flies low in Princeton. (It now rests in peace at the bottom of the Delaware River.) (Alan Tu/WHYY)

A DJI Phantom drone flies low in Princeton. (It now rests in peace at the bottom of the Delaware River.) (Alan Tu/WHYY)

The use of drones is accelerating, and five New Jersey universities are developing applications for the unmanned aerial devices.

During a roundtable discussion with lawmakers at the New Jersey Statehouse Monday, researchers discussed how drones can provide emergency communications links for first responders, inspect bridges, monitor traffic, and market real estate.

Chris Molloy, vice president for research and economic development at Rutgers University, said researchers there have started a new company based on drone technology.

“We’re developing drones that can actually fly under water to be able to look to coordinate above and below surface on the shoreline disturbances involving climate change,” Molloy said. “It could be a very safe way for divers to actually inspect pilings, oil rigs, etc.”

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Researchers are working on ground-based systems to detect drones trying to avoid radar while crossing the border, said Hady Salloum at Stevens Institute of Technology.

“Drones — just like a car or an airplane — are a way to carry things across the border, whether it’s money or drugs or whatever,” Salloum said. “People in charge of law enforcement would like to have ways to detect them given that they’re much smaller and much harder to deal with than cars.”

Jeff Sassinsky, the president of Fovea Aero Systems, said his company has developed a device to deal with security concerns about drones.

“We have seen instances especially overseas where drones are being weaponized or being used for nefarious purposes, certainly something that we have to be mindful of,” he said. “One of our technologies that we’ve created is a drone that actually captures other drones and moves it to a safe location.”

The universities are on the cutting edge of drone technology that will help create jobs and retain highly educated students in the state, said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“This is an industry in a few years that is going to be a couple-billion-dollar industry annually, and Rutgers was actually saying the best and brightest are getting degrees to stay here and work in these kinds of fields,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

Lawmakers might consider incentives for universities that are advancing drone technology, he said.

Donald Sebastian, the president of the New Jersey Innovation Institute, said the drone research is causing a renewed student interest in science and technology.

“It’s been a very long time, almost since the Space Age, before there was stuff in the news and accessible to kids that made them excited about science and technology,” he said. “Now they have the ability not just to watch something going into orbit like I did. They have the ability to build stuff and to fly these things. It really creates a whole new excitement about why you would want to study math, chemistry and physics.”

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