EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The use of drones could revolutionize the way New Jersey responds to natural disasters, according to some officials and private agencies.
Those parties gathered Wednesday at the National Aviation Research & Technology Park to demonstrate the ways in which unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, can work in tandem with manned aircraft in response to such situations.
Currently, the general rule from the Federal Aviation Administration is that drones cannot be flown in the immediate aftermath of an emergency, though enthusiasts have been known to pitch in and survey the area without permission. The purpose of Wednesday’s test was to show the administration that New Jersey has thorough enough systems and procedures to cooperate with search-and-rescue aircraft in the event of a disaster.
If approved by the FAA, the state would be just the fourth to use such a strategy.
Carole Mattessich, director of the Smart Airport Aviation Partnership, one of the entities involved, said the use of drones would be crucial in the event of a hurricane or tropical storm, especially in the southern portion of the state. For places only accessible by bridge, she added, emergency services can take up to three days to get there as the bridge first has to be inspected in person. Drones would dramatically speed things up.
“Drones can do that almost immediately,” Mattessich said, “by getting up close with really sophisticated camera equipment and streaming back imagery that permits structural engineers to examine the structural integrity of the bridge, in the moment and within a matter of hours.”
Drones took off shortly after 11 a.m. from Woodbine Municipal Airport and spread across multiple counties. Back at the technology park, officials used a conference room as a mock command center to view livestreamed footage.
In an emergency situation, that footage could be used to assess damage and help first responders plan a course of action more quickly.
“In addition, some of the UAS can actually carry cellphone transmitters inside of them,” said Todd Wardwell of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay. “So they’re all doing this simultaneously while they’re sending data back to the regional operation integration center in New Jersey, so we can all use the data as a partnership.”
Also included in the project are AeroDefense, American Aerospace Technologies Inc., Sky Scape Industries, New Jersey American Water and Arke Aeronautics.
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Some of the companies contributed their own funding, but the project also was backed by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Authority.
There is optimism that the state could be approved by this upcoming hurricane season.
“I think we’re all excited about it,” said David Yoel, CEO of AATI. “It’s really covering many counties across the state now. The first exercises we did in 2016 and 2017 were very local to Cape May County, but now there’s a growing consensus of the value of drones in emergency response to accelerate recovery, save lives and reduce damage.”
The drones vary in sizes to serve a number of purposes, such as emergency supply drops. Additionally, the ones with cellular transmitters can provide cell service when phone lines are down.
“There are just so many different things (they can do),” Mattessich said.
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Hosting the drone project was one of a few ways the aviation park is working to become a premier destination for aviation research. The facility, built on FAA-owned land near Atlantic City International Airport in 2019, is home to several companies in the aviation industry and holds classes for the Atlantic County Institute of Technology. A second building is in the works, with prospective tenants already reaching out for space.
According to NARTP President Howard Kyle, the growth of the facility could be a great benefit to the county’s economy. The recent approval of a four-story hotel at the airport, giving traveling scientists and researchers a place to stay and hold larger conferences, may prove to be a catalyst.
“We realized, as a result of a study that was done, that aviation offers a lot of potential very quickly,” Kyle said. “That’s why the county made the investment here to do the park.”
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