WOODBINE — Christopher Desmond smiled as the drone test came to a close in Belleplain State Forest.
“This is the very first time this cutting-edge technology has been in the hands of public first responders,” said Desmond, a Verizon engineer.
That technology, developed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, is what Verizon calls a “flying cell site,” designed to bring cellphone service to first responders in coverage-denied areas, either as a result of a natural disaster or other emergency. The effort was a joint venture among Verizon, American Aerospace Technologies and Cape May County.
A 17-foot wingspan drone carried the cell site last week from Woodbine Airport to the simulated emergency scene in the middle of the forest where first responders from around the region gathered, including representatives from the Cape May County Office of Emergency Management, State Police and U.S. Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay.
The first responders tested smartphones provided by Verizon to see if they could get a wireless signal, connect to the internet or make a call. The aircraft communications were connected back to the State Police command center in Trenton and the Cape May County emergency management center.
“I think it went very well. We learned a lot, and we see a big potential for that type of technology in emergency management,” said Marty Pagliughi, Cape May County director of emergency management.
Pagliughi said the biggest problem with any natural disaster or emergency event is communications, where radio and cellphones are the primary methods of communication.
Ocean City emergency management coordinator Frank Donato said that during the test, he immediately thought back to August 2011. An earthquake, which had an epicenter in Virginia, shook the East Coast, sending residents in the area into a panic.
“Everybody’s first instinct was to jump on their phone,” Donato said.
He said that created slow cell service, “even for emergency responders, who rely very much on cellphones.”
David Yoel, CEO and founder of American Aerospace, said it was another emergency that inspired him to develop this technology: Hurricane Sandy. The epic storm that ravaged the New Jersey coastline in October 2012 knocked out power to 25 percent of the cell towers in its path, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
“First responders on barrier islands had no communications,” Yoel said. “Nobody knew where they were, what they needed.”
After surveying first responders in the wake of Sandy and five years of development, the demonstration last Tuesday was a big moment.
Desmond said the airborne cell site was “amazingly flexible” and quickly deployed in an emergency.
“Another tool in the box,” Desmond said.
For Cape May County, which is making a push to become a leader in the state for drone development, the test marked a step forward. Earlier this year, the county received authorization from the FAA for such testing.
“We’re committed to looking at this advancement in technology. Cape May County is committed to the drone industry,” Pagliughi said.
He expects the tests done this month to turn into viable options for emergency responders in the near future.
“We’ve been looking and working with these companies for about two years, and you see how the technology is advancing all the time,” Pagliughi said.
609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe