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Hernando commission joins state effort to become test site for drones

BROOKSVILLE — Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport is back in the running to become a testing site for unmanned drones.

Before a fired-up group of opponents, the Hernando County Commission voted 3-2 Tuesday to become part of the Space Florida initiative, a coalition of public, private and academic entities that has applied to be one of six drone testing sites the Federal Aviation Administration is seeking across the country.

That coalition includes NASA, a smattering of other Florida airports and universities across the state.

For Hernando to get a piece of the drone-testing business, Space Florida would have to be chosen by the FAA, and Hernando then would have to be offered a project that the County Commission would be willing to take on.

Two weeks ago, commission Chairman Dave Russell shut down discussion regarding the issue, causing the county to miss a deadline to submit its own application. Since then, the county learned that Space Florida had applied by the deadline and Hernando could get into the running under that umbrella.

Protesters waved anti-drone signs outside the county government center in downtown Brooksville before Tuesday's meeting, and plenty stuck around to criticize the drone-testing idea.

Testing would defeat the rebranding effort the county has been working on for the airport, argued Brian Moore of the NatureCoast Coalition for Peace and Justice. "You're going to hurt your marketability" and keep companies from relocating to the county.

Ana Trinque, speaking on behalf of the Hernando County Association of Realtors, read a letter supporting the county's effort. The Realtors said this was a "once-in-a-lifetime chance."

Michael McHugh, the county's business development director, explained that the resolution approved Tuesday would simply keep the county in the running for drone testing and related projects; each project would have to come before the County Commission for a separate vote, he said.

Commissioner Diane Rowden made a motion to approve the resolution, then read a new version with more focus on developing safety and privacy protocols.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said he would support the resolution because of the added safety and privacy provisions and because if a project popped up and wasn't acceptable, the commission could back out.

Russell and Commissioner Wayne Dukes said they could not support the resolution.

Dukes said he had seen airplane crashes and worried about safety. Russell repeated his previous argument that, as a pilot, he was not comfortable with drone testing at the Hernando airport because the technology still isn't perfected to avoid collisions.

That technology, Russell said, "needs to be developed somewhere else."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando commission joins state effort to become test site for drones 04/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 9:14pm]
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