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Joining with state could be ticket to drone testing in Hernando

Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando County Aviation Authority, says drone testing would benefit the local economy.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando County Aviation Authority, says drone testing would benefit the local economy.

BROOKSVILLE — The testing of unmanned drone aircraft in Hernando County may not be a dead deal, after all.

The ticket could be piggybacking on the state's application.

The county missed a key deadline last week when commissioners did not vote to participate in the program, which includes the testing of drones and other related aviation projects.

But Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport could still play a part if the county joins a statewide initiative known as Space Florida, which did make the federal deadline and is competing for the Federal Aviation Administration's approval as one or more of six testing sites being sought nationwide.

If commissioners approve, Hernando and its airport would join with a network of other entities across the state — including civil and military government agencies, academic institutions and industry — that are interested in a piece of the domestic drone-testing business.

The list includes NASA, the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and the University of Miami. Gov. Rick Scott heads Space Florida.

On Tuesday, the commission will consider approving a resolution that would okay Hernando's collaboration with private and public entities involved in the FAA's drone integration project.

The resolution notes that "the research and development activities at the airport should always be conducted in accordance with our community protection in mind, specifically as it relates to safety and privacy.''

Opposition to Hernando's participation in the drone testing has centered on those two concerns: safety and privacy.

Commission Chairman Dave Russell, who was criticized for stifling discussion of the drone issue at last week's commission meeting, this week agreed to place the item on the agenda for further discussion.

Russell, a pilot, said he could not support a program that would have unmanned drones flying in the same airspace with the general aviation traffic. No technology exists for collision avoidance in drones, Russell told the commission.

He said he could support other ground-based pieces of the testing program.

Russell's viewpoint and handling of the meeting riled his longtime supporter and fellow airport advocate, Gary Schraut.

Schraut, chairman of the county's Aviation Authority, has argued that, after all the work he and Russell have done to improve the airport — including getting the control tower and renaming the facility — drone testing could be a huge opportunity.

While Schraut acknowledged that he hadn't talked with commissioners about drone testing before last week's meeting, he has since, except for Russell.

County staffers also met with commissioners over the last couple of days to bring them up to speed on the issue and prepare them for Tuesday's discussion.

If approved, "this will allow us to participate as a member airport with the state,'' said Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager. And as part of the state's effort, he said, the county might have more flexibility to participate in some broader aspects of drone technology.

McHugh said the resolution would not tie the county to any specific project, but keep the airport in the running for projects as they are defined and individually approved by the County Commission.

He said that it was clear from last week's discussion that the public is concerned about safety and privacy, and that is why those issues are specifically mentioned in the resolution. The same conversation is happening across the country as lawmakers grapple with the right way to use drone technology "so they are not adversely used or abused for other reasons,'' McHugh said.

Commissioner Diane Rowden said she is excited that Hernando may still yet have a chance to participate in the testing program.

"It's a fantastic opportunity,'' Rowden said.

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

Joining with state could be ticket to drone testing in Hernando 04/04/13 [Last modified: Thursday, April 4, 2013 8:22pm]
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