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Saturday, Aug 02, 2014
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Sebring airport might become home for drones

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Stuck in a two-hour traffic jam on the Selmon Crosstown Expressway Tuesday morning, Mike Willingham became more convinced than ever that his idea to create a drone- based research and development operation at Sebring Airport is on the money.

A small, drone-flown camera could have provided a feed that drivers could link to, allowing them to avoid massive tie-ups.

“Had I had that ability in real-time, I might have made a different choice on what road to take,” said Willingham, executive director of the Sebring Regional Airport and Commerce Park, who was on his way to a meeting in Tampa.

A traffic management system, said Willingham, is just one of the many potential uses of the unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. With a loosening in federal regulations on drone flights looming, industry analysts estimate the market could be worth billions.

That’s why Willingham is investigating whether to obtain permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones, which would make his airport the first in the state with that ability.

“We have been looking at this as an economic development tool, a way to bring high-tech research and development to our region,” said Willingham, who has been reaching out to drone industry leaders to make his case.

The airport, right next to the Avon Park Air Force Range where the military sometimes uses drones in training exercises, is poised to offer a unique opportunity to test both military and civilian unmanned aerial systems, said Willingham.

Drones are big business.

For years, they have been primarily used by the military, which has employed unmanned aircraft like the Predator to hunt and kill. But an entirely new market is looming.

Last year, Congress passed legislation mandating that the FAA figure out how to integrate the civilian use of drones into the national airspace, for uses ranging from assisting law enforcement and first responders, to farmers looking for more economical ways to check their crops. Part of that process is finding six sites around the nation for research and testing. In February, the agency unveiled its criteria for those sites.

Florida, through an organization called Space Florida, is in the process of putting in an application.

Willingham’s efforts, still in the embryonic stage, are independent of that.

But the bottom line in both is money. Lots of it.

The FAA said just the hosting of the test sites will “present economic opportunities for both the communities that are selected … and the aerospace industry in general.”

The agency does not put a dollar figure on those opportunities, but one industry trade organization said that the civilian drone industry will be worth more than $10 billion in the first three years alone.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates allowing civilian drones into the national airspace will produce an economic benefit of “more than $13.6 billion in the first three years and will grow sustainably for the foreseeable future, cumulating to more than $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025.”

The industry will create more than 34,000 manufacturing jobs and more than 70,000 new jobs in the first three years after drones are allowed to fly in the airspace, according to the organization, which estimates that by 2025, total job creation will exceed 100,000 nationwide.

Willingham said that he is investigating whether the Sebring Airport Authority – the public agency overseeing the airport – should try to cash in on this boom by obtaining permission from the FAA to operate drones.

The airport, he said, would be looking for permission to create a test area of about two to three miles wide and four to six miles in length.

The idea, he said, is to create a place where manufacturers can test and fly small, hand-held drones.

The proximity to the Avon Park Air Force Range is a potential advantage, said Willingham.

“There might be some synergy there,” he said. “Companies can test their military hardware at Avon Park then test their private sector vehicles in our airspace.”

In an email he sent last month to about 50 manufacturers and other drone industry leaders, Willingham pointed out another one of the airport’s advantages.

“We offer a wide range of business advantages and incentives and now have two buildings with over 130,000 square feet available for lease for businesses in need of relocation or expansion,” he wrote. “These facilities could be adapted very easily” for drone research and development.

But to obtain permission to fly drones through what is called a Certificate of Authorization, Willingham might have to clear a potential hurdle.

The FAA said it is unclear whether the Sebring Airport Authority can seek a certificate on its own, or has to rely on a state agency, like the Attorney General’s Office to obtain one. Willingham said he is aware of the concern, but has not yet addressed it.

As of Feb. 15, the FAA had issued more than 1,400 certificates, with more than 300 still active. The certificates were granted to universities and law enforcement, among others.

Drones are not without critics.

The accidental killing of civilians in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, along with the targeted killings of American citizens like al-Qaida spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki have generated international condemnation.

Closer to home, privacy concerns over the use of drones by law enforcement have prompted the state legislature to take up the issue. A bill wending its way through the State Senate would sharply limit the use of drones by law enforcement.

Willingham said he is taking those concerns into account as he investigates whether the airport should seek permission to fly drones.

“I really think this whole process will transform who we are in many different ways once we get past the privacy issues,” he said. “It is really educating the public on what these systems could really mean, the betterment of lives, lowering costs.”

Concern over privacy issues generated protest in Hernando County when drone opponents demonstrated against plans to bring drone testing to Brooksville. The Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport and Technology Center had considered petitioning to be one of the FAA’s six test sites, but the Hernando County Commission didn’t vote on the matter at a recent meeting.

There is another flaw in that plan.

The airport did not realize that Space Florida has its own effort to bring a test site to the state, according to commissioner Diane Rowden, the liaison to the airport and the only member of the commission to support testing drones there. Commissioner Dave Russell, who said the airspace over the Hernando County airport is too congested to test experimental aircraft, said the commission will take up the issue of drones at the airport again on Tuesday.

Hernando officials have agreed to work with Space Florida on the state’s application process, according to Jim Kuzma, Space Florida senior vice president and chief operating officer.

Creating a drone research and development program at the Sebring airport could be good for the entire state, said Aaron Smith, the Florida Department of Transportation state aviation manager.

“Any opportunity the state gets to capitalize on unmanned aerial vehicles is good for the state as well as the local municipalities,” said Smith. “I think it is fascinating that he is looking into this. Sebring Airport has a history of thinking outside the box. This could be another opportunity to continue developing Sebring as an economic engine for the state of Florida.”

Willingham’s efforts are so preliminary that the chairman of the Highlands County Commission said he is not aware of them and George Hensley, the Mayor of Sebring, has only had brief discussions about them.

But Hensley has faith in Willingham.

“We do have a very nice airport and proximity to the bombing range,” said Hensley. “If stars all line up, I trust our airport board and Mike as manager would make the right decisions on that.”


haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

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