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Hernando commissioners turn down drone testing at airport

BROOKSVILLE — After a long debate Tuesday featuring more than a dozen concerned residents, the Hernando County Commission shot down the idea of drone testing at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

The speakers opposed to testing were worried about the safety of drones and their potential to invade privacy.

A long sheet of paper printed with the slogan "No drones here" and bearing nearly 100 signatures was presented to the commission Tuesday.

"Just imagine what failure of the drones could bring," said Hernando resident Shirley Miketinac. "Just say no to drone testing in our unrestricted air space."

Proponents saw testing as a chance to get in on the ground level of an emerging technology that could create high-paying, high-tech jobs.

Earlier this month, the Hernando County Aviation Authority agreed to pursue the application that could bring testing to the airport, authority chairman Gary Schraut told the commission. The authority had signed a nonbinding agreement with a private drone support company, TaSM LLC.

The Federal Aviation Administration is seeking six sites across the country to conduct testing of unmanned drones. The tests will focus on whether drone aircraft can mix with general aviation in unrestricted air space.

Applying to be picked as one of the testing sites, Schraut said, would put Hernando "at the cutting edge of this technology."

The airport could set rules to make the testing as safe as possible, including directing where drones can fly and observing drones with manned airplanes.

"The opportunities here are limitless," Schraut said. "We can be the Cape Canaveral of the west coast."

"This technology is coming. It's just whether we want to be a part of it," said Dennis Wilfong, a member of the aviation authority.

After the public comment, the debate came down to a pitch from Commissioner Diane Rowden, who wanted the application to move forward, and a response from amateur pilot and commission Chairman Dave Russell.

Rowden, the commission's liaison to the airport, had asked commissioners to approve a resolution that would allow the airport to stay in the running to be a test site. She questioned why the resolution, which had been slated to be discussed Tuesday, had been pulled from the agenda at the last minute.

That meant moving forward with testing would require a majority vote of the commission to put the issue on the agenda of a future meeting, and then a vote to approve it.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes said that while he supports job creation, "the timing of this is extremely bad. … Never in my lifetime have citizens been so afraid of government. That's just the reality." He said he couldn't support the resolution.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said he didn't have enough information, and Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he didn't want to talk about the issue at all.

Russell did want to talk.

He said he favors bringing jobs to the airport and has worked hard to do so, but added that the facility should primarily be "about the people who fly in and out of the airport."

Russell used a graphic to show one possible approach to the airport from the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, drones would have to fly over Hernando Beach, Springstead High School and a large shopping center near the Suncoast Parkway and Spring Hill Drive.

"We have a lot of population in these areas," Russell said. He also noted that drones do not now have the technology to avoid collisions in places where pilots rely on visual flight rules. "As a pilot," he said, "I'm opposed" to moving forward on the testing proposal.

Without any action by the commission, the resolution was not adopted, so the county's bid for the testing site ends.

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

Hernando commissioners turn down drone testing at airport 03/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 10:23pm]
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