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Drone flights, research take off in Pa. and N.J.

For a week this summer, you could have had your dry cleaning delivered via a drone in Manayunk.

For a week this summer, you could have had your dry cleaning delivered via a drone in Manayunk.

But then the Federal Aviation Administration stepped in, telling Manayunk Cleaners owner Harout Vartanian that his business was running afoul of the agency's ban on using drones for commercial purposes.

When Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos outlined a plan for his own drone package deliveries earlier this month, it made headlines but sounded improbable for the near future.

As the handful of drone deliveries made by Manayunk Cleaners in July shows, the age of drones is upon us: Around Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the devices are being developed, researched and used in a variety of ways.

Customers were interested in the remote-controlled drone deliveries "big time," Vartanian said. "We were thinking it would shoot off, become part of the business. Not a lot of people can come down here and pick up their dry cleaning on time."

But, as both the giant Amazon and tiny dry cleaning business discovered, commercial applications are only a dream - for now. Drones -- which those in the business call unmanned aerial vehicles or systems, abbreviated as UAVs or UAS -- aren't permitted to be flown for commercial purposes. A public entity wishing to fly them must apply to the FAA for a certificate of waiver or authorization, known as a COA, by verifying it is a government agency and describing the aircraft in detail, including how, when and where the UAV would be used. Private institutions, such as drone manufacturers, must receive a special airworthiness certificate, which lets the devices be used for limited purposes. Remote-controlled unmanned aircrafts built by hobbyists are also allowed.

Still, many believe the age of the commercial drone is inevitable. The question is when.

Meanwhile, drone use in the United States is growing, though it's difficult to tell exactly how much.

A myriad of local institutions are busy preparing for the future. Area companies are building unmanned aircraft. Researchers are studying flight dynamics and fuel efficiency. Rutgers University is vying to lead an FAA drone test site. And high school students are building a crop-spraying drone for New Jersey farmers.

In some cases, drones are already aloft. Military officers are flying drones for training over central Pennsylvania, and preparing to command overseas operations from Montgomery County. An unmanned helicopter monitors geological features for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

"The technology is out of Pandora's box," said Michael Piasecki, president and founder of Essington-based Dragonfly Pictures Inc. Working for the military, the Delaware County company has developed several UAVs.

Applications for drone licenses have escalated in the past year and a half, said Jennifer Lynch, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has filed lawsuits to obtain information on which organizations have applied for and been awarded the certificates.

The FAA has issued 1,428 COAs since January 2007, according to a February Government Accountability Office report. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech last month that he expects 7,500 UAVs in U.S. skies in the next five years.

Not everyone thinks that's a good thing. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about how UAVs could enable law enforcement to easily surveil citizens, for any reason or no reason at all.

"There are no regulations that protect the public from drone surveillance," Lynch said.

Early uses: Military and law enforcement

The military has used drones most infamously for targeted killings, but unmanned vehicles are also deployed for surveillance and tactical support -- and a number of military UAVs have Pennsylvania ties.

A new drone command center at the Horsham Air Guard Station became active in October. Now, personnel there are undergoing training and infrastructure is being set up for future operations.

The MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircrafts will be flown overseas, but controlled from Horsham. The aircraft can remain in the air for a long time -- up to 12 to 15 hours -- which will be a boon to combat missions, said Master Sgt. Christopher Botzum, a spokesman for the 111th Fighter Wing.

"They can support our guys on the ground for that much longer," he said.

UAVs are already flying over central Pennsylvania skies.

The Pennsylvania National Guard is using unmanned planes in restricted airspace over Fort Indiantown Gap for training purposes. The guard has used the devices extensively in Iraq; when training at home, the UAVs only fly "right above the (military) post," Pennsylvania National Guard Adjutant General Wesley Craig said at a state House budget hearing earlier this year.

The flights are limited to restricted military airspace because "a drone aircraft can't see other airplanes approaching," Craig told lawmakers.

The terms of each COA vary, but they typically include restrictions on altitude, timing and other matters, and require the devices to remain within the line of sight of an operator. That's expected to continue while regulations are being developed to integrate the unmanned aircrafts into normal airspace, though their eventual use could be more widespread, said Melanie Hinton, spokeswoman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Additionally, companies in the region have provided UAVs to the military and law enforcement.

The U.S. Army has used the DP-12 Rhino drone by Dragonfly Pictures Inc. -- which runs on gasoline, weighs 405 pounds and measures 6.7 feet long, 4.5 feet tall and 3.3 feet wide -- for geolocation and imaging, company president Piasecki said.

DPI is also developing a model geared toward resupplying troops, with 23 cubic feet of storage space that will be able to fit hundreds of pounds of ammunition, food and water.

"You could fit 25 shoeboxes in there," Piasecki said, ribbing Amazon's plans for single-package deliveries.

Test flights are planned for the spring, and DPI is also under contract with the Navy to build an electric-powered UAV.

In 2011, the Miami-Dade Police Department became the the first major force to get permission to use an unmanned aircraft to support tactical teams. The department operates the T-Hawk UAV, which was developed by the Morristown, N.J.-headquartered conglomerate Honeywell.

Expanding airspace

By the end of the year, the FAA is slated to select six test sites that will work to determine how to integrate UAVs into the skies.

One institution vying to run a site is Rutgers, which aims to partner with Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland for the flight center. The test sites will establish how both government-run and commercial UAVs can safely fly in regular airspace.

The trio's proposal, called the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, takes advantage of the variety of airspace in the region -- there's both commercial and restricted space, and air over both land and water, said Thomas Farris, the School of Engineering dean at Rutgers.

The school's researchers are already studying issues like landing patterns and fuel efficiency, and a major focus for the site would be determining how much separation is necessary between aircrafts during various operations.

"Having UAS flying and embedding UAS in the national airspace, the notion of minimum separation is very important," Farris said.

The test sites will also determine best practices that "may be applied more generally to protect privacy in UAS operations," according to a Department of Transportation report, sent to members of Congress last month.

More research

Drone research is under way at other schools, too.

At Penn State, scholars had hoped to fly UAVs to study flight dynamics. The university applied for a COA to conduct flights, but the license was denied because the school didn't meet the FAA's definition of a public entity, aerospace engineering professor Jack Langelaan said.

He said Penn State is proceeding with computer simulations in the meantime.

"We can learn a lot that way, but it's not quite the same as flying a real aircraft," he said.

At the University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception laboratory, researchers are developing flying robots that can sense their environments autonomously.

In a 2012 TED talk that's been viewed more than 3 million times on TED's website and YouTube, Penn engineering professor Vijay Kumar describes potential applications for the lab's robots that range from searching for intruders or biochemical leaks to transporting cargo to assessing natural-disaster damage.

The lab is working on getting groups of the robots to sense the separation between them and fly in formation.

"So once you know how to fly in formation, you can actually pick up objects cooperatively," Kumar said in the talk. "So this just shows that we can double, triple, quadruple the robot strength by just getting them to team with neighbors...."

Even high-schoolers are getting into UAV research.

In October, students at the Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies in Edison, N.J., received a grant of up to $10,000 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to further their work developing an unmanned crop-spraying drone for small farms.

The device, according to the school, will be about 5 feet across and use both GPS and computerized visual tracking via a camera.

The device "will help many farmers right here in Middlesex County," Freeholder Charles E. Tomaro said in a statement. "Keeping the county's agricultural heritage alive and helping our small businesses thrive by introducing new technology illustrate how our students are helping their community."

'iPhones of the sky'

Proponents of UAVs say their applications are nearly endless. In the region, uses range from monitoring sinkholes to taking photographs for an Ivy League college's campus publications.

PennDOT spent about $22,000 last year for a remote-controlled helicopter that's used to obtain images of sinkholes, landslides, rock cuts and other geological formations. It's been used along U.S. Routes 11 and 15 north of Harrisburg and along Route 33 in the Lehigh Valley, PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said.

The agency purchased the unmanned aircraft, he said, because "it seemed a rather inexpensive and practical way to help us do our job."

Kirkpatrick said the UAV has been effective so far, and saves the agency money. In the past, a state aircraft would be sent up in such situations. A 2009 flight to check on sinkhole activity in the Lehigh Valley in 2009 cost $2,783, he said. Using the UAV runs about $290 a day in personnel and travel costs.

At Princeton University, an aerial photography company used an unmanned drone this spring to take photos and video of the campus for the admissions office. The images were to be used in upcoming university publications.

Those involved in the UAV industry say many more applications will eventually be possible.

As for Amazon, the fate of its drone delivery program, dubbed Prime Air, hinges on the rules the FAA writes based on outcomes from the test sites. Shortly after Bezos announced the company's plans, the FAA issued a statement reiterating that its regulations ban most commercial and autonomous drone flights -- like those Amazon hopes to operate. And Amazon itself acknowledges that making the service a reality "will take some number of years as we advance the technology and wait for the necessary FAA rules and regulations."

Like other technology, the range of UAV uses will expand as the machines become more widespread, said Joseph Pawelczyk, who works in business development and as a project engineer at DPI.

"UAVs are the iPhone of the sky," he said.