Wednesday, January 24, 2018
News Roundup

Hernando commission to revisit drone testing

BROOKSVILLE — Drones just might be tested in Hernando County after all.

Last week, the County Commission chose not to act on a resolution that would have kept the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport in the running to become a testing site for the unmanned aircraft.

The lack of action meant the county missed the deadline to apply.

Several residents, including business leaders, were critical of commission Chairman Dave Russell's handling of the matter. Some of them complained that Russell didn't allow a full discussion of testing or a chance to adequately explore the issue.

The Federal Aviation Administration is seeking six sites throughout the country to research how to integrate drones into the national airspace. Russell, an amateur pilot, is opposed to testing at the airport for safety reasons.

Russell said Tuesday that he has not changed his mind about drone testing at the Hernando airport but has heard the outcry about the lack of discussion. He has asked that the topic be discussed in more detail at Tuesday's regular commission meeting.

Staff will give a presentation on drones — a presentation Russell wouldn't allow last week. County staff is also exploring whether there's a way for Hernando to be allowed to stay in the running as a testing site despite the missed application deadline, Russell said.

When word of the FAA's testing program was released in February, the NatureCoast Coalition for Peace and Justice began protesting.

Citing concerns about safety, expense and invasion of privacy, the group's members stepped up their protests when they learned the program might come to Hernando.

The Hernando County Aviation Authority voted unanimously last month to pursue an application to be considered as a drone testing site.

Officials had signed a nonbinding letter of agreement with drone-support company TaSM LLC to proceed.

Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut had argued in favor of exploring the drone testing because it could mean new jobs in the highly sought-after aviation industry.

When Schraut — usually a supporter of Russell's — spoke to the commission last week, Russell cut him off shortly after the three-minute limit that citizens are given to speak to the board.

Schraut was critical of Russell's stand on the issue, saying that everything that Russell and Schraut had worked together over the years to create at the airport had set the stage for just such an opportunity.

When he heard that Russell was willing to continue the conversation, Schraut said he was grateful.

Drones, he said, "are the future of aviation if we like it or not. The FAA has chosen that they are going to invest in that direction. … I think it's great that we're continuing the discussion."

Commissioner Diane Rowden, another supporter of testing, was also grateful that the issue will get a more complete airing.

"It's a great idea'' to continue the discussion, Rowden said. "We may have missed out on this opportunity but there could be another one right around the corner.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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