U.S. officials said Monday that they plan to conduct testing in what may be the most congested airspace in the nation - the corridor between New York and Washington - to integrate unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, into the air traffic system.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it had approved a joint application by New Jersey and Virginia to be among six national test sites for integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the airspace.
Test sites also include New York, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, and a joint region of Alaska-Hawaii-Oregon. Data collected, such as research about "sense-and-avoid" systems, lost-link procedures, and human error, will help the FAA develop regulations and procedures for future commercial and civil use of the airspace by unmanned aircraft, according to Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman in Washington.
The first site where testing will be conducted - which has not been named - will be operational within 180 days, and all of the UAS sites will operate until February 2017.
Although no figure was disclosed on the cost of the program, officials said no funding from the FAA will be used. Operations will be handled jointly by the agency, the military, and entities such as Rutgers University, Virginia Tech, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, and others.
The program was established by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. That law mandated that the FAA, in consultation with NASA and the Department of Defense, consider geographic and climate diversity, ground infrastructure, and research needs in choosing the sites. As many as 24 states competed for the program.
"Today's announcement is a great way to kick off the new year, promising significant economic opportunities in the aviation field, particularly for South Jersey," U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), chair of the aviation subcommittee, said in a statement.
LoBiondo said he and others in the region, including Gov. Christie, had mounted a "years-long effort" to create a strong application for the project.
"Our cooperative efforts, in conjunction with the FAA Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, will continue as our test sites take off and commercial unmanned aircraft systems open up new economic opportunities for our states," LoBiondo said.
Jason Galanes, a spokesman for LoBiondo, said he was unable to cite specific, immediate economic triggers for the region but said the program fosters a "next wave" of technological uses for unmanned aircraft.
From farmers and ranchers checking on crops and livestock to Coast Guard search and rescue operations, the uses of the technology are myriad, he said. Amazon.com said it would consider the use of drones to deliver packages, a type of technology that will be researched under the program.
Galanes called it the "cherry on top" that South Jersey would benefit from the use of the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center as the lead collection site for data obtained from the six test sites. It is unclear how many jobs the program might create for South Jersey, he said.
While unmanned drone aircraft have been used to collect data on the movements of enemies of the United States, and to aid in military strikes, some lawmakers and civil-rights organizations are concerned that the technology could infringe on privacy and rights of U.S. citizens.
Since 2007, the FAA has authorized the use of more than 1,400 unmanned aircraft by several federal agencies, universities, and local police departments. The drones range from the size of a bird to ones that weigh more than two tons.
"The thought of government drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society," Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) testified during a Judiciary Committee hearing last year on whether legislation on drones is needed to protect civil liberties.
The FAA's Duquette said that to ensure the privacy of citizens living near test facilities in the nine states involved in the drone research, individual authorization certificates for each operation would have to be obtained. The FAA also has published privacy requirements including that test-site operators comply with federal, state, and other laws protecting individual rights.
In New Jersey and Virginia, test sites will likely include unused airspace over the Atlantic. Warren Grove, an no-man's-land of sorts in a remote corner of Ocean County, will be part of the program, Galanes said.
That area is in Little Egg Harbor, Stafford, and Barnegat Townships in Ocean County and has long been used as a bomb practice range. The site became controversial 10 years ago when 25 rounds of ammunition misfired from an F-16 and hit the Little Egg Harbor Elementary School.
Students were not in the school at the time, and no one was injured. But bomb testing has also sparked at least four major Pinelands fires that have destroyed more than 30,000 acres of forest.
Little Egg Harbor Township Mayor John Kehm did not return calls for comment. Deputy Mayor Ray Gormley said he was unaware of the plan and deferred further comment to Kehm.
Sandy Smolski, 49, of Little Egg Harbor, who was among 6,000 people routed from their homes in 2007 when one of the bombing fires devoured 17,000 acres, said the drones would only add to Warren Grove's headaches.
"What if one of these things goes off course and ends up crashing into someone's home, or, God forbid, a school?" Smolski asked. "Not to mention the idea that we could all be subject to an intrusion on our privacy. Where are our rights as citizens not to have this kind of threat in our backyards?"