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Hernando aviation authority approves drone bid

BROOKSVILLE — Could unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, be flying over the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport soon?

Well, maybe.

The Hernando County Aviation Authority on Thursday agreed that the airport should continue with its application for a chance to be chosen as one of six sites considered by the Federal Aviation Administration for drone testing.

Several weeks ago the FAA had sent out a request for proposals seeking sites to host one of six drone testing locations across the country, said airport manager Don Silvernell. The information was complex and Silvernell reached out to find help preparing documentation.

He ended up contacting TaSM, a company that uses drones and supports drone systems around the world.

Company representatives visited and helped Silvernell to meet an initial application deadline. TaSM has also offered a staff member to come to Brooksville for three days to work on assembling the materials needed to fulfill the next step of the application process. Silvernell said he signed a memorandum of understanding which is non binding.

If the airport becomes an approved site, the company would bring in a building to serve as their workspace and would provide testing of drones that could range in size from small hand-launch models to drones 40-45 foot wingspan, Silvernell told the authority members.

The testing would focus on whether drones can be integrated into general aviation unrestricted air space.

Silvernell said he was glad the airport didn't miss deadlines to be considered in the program. "At least we got into the pipe,'' he said.

"It's an opportunity but a lot of things that we need to be concerned about,'' said Gary Schraut, chairman of the authority.

Those concerns were already arising during the authority's meeting.

"What's to be gained for us here?'' asked David Lemon, a long-time pilot with a history in the military. He said that too much airspace is already restricted and "I will be fighting this tooth and nail.''

Also attending the meeting was Shahra Anderson, regional director for Sen. Bill Nelson. She said he had received the airport's letter of intent and would work with them through the process if they chose to pursue the test site designation.

But she also asked the authority to look at the big picture and be aware that opposition to drones has surfaced, and that there is a bill before the state Legislature restricting non-military drone use.

If the drone testing and use moves forward, Anderson said, Nelson is backing an accompanying privacy component. These discussions are taking place now, she said, because drones are just coming into widespread use in the country. Most previously were used overseas.

An FAA spokesman told the Times last week that 50 applications had already been received from 37 states including Florida. Anderson said that, in Florida, Brevard County is also interested in being a drone-testing site.

Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager, said the airport here is attractive to TaSM for several reasons including that it is not that large, has an appropriate mix of traffic and has a military component.

"We don't know where this is going,'' Schraut said. If it does move forward, "it might be interesting for us to be cutting edge.''

Both Schraut and Silvernell said that nothing will be made formal about the official application to be a test site until more research is conducted and both the aviation authority and the County Commission vote to approve.

Airport liaison, Commissioner Diane Rowden, noted that "there is always fear of the unknown.''

Lemon countered that he did know about drones from his time in the military and they served a purpose but, "they just don't need to be running around the Brooksville airport.''

Staff Writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando aviation authority approves drone bid 03/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 8:13pm]
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