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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

Divided board to apply for drone testing at airport

Published:   |   Updated: April 10, 2013 at 09:26 AM

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Activist Brian Moore said any jobs created from drone testing at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport would be “unethical and evil.”

Government watchdog Anthony Palmieri said public and government officials must conquer its “fear of the unknown” and grab a piece of this new drone technology for the betterment of the economy.

And so it went for two hours as county commissioners Tuesday heard from scores of residents, activists and peace group advocates – all of whom came down firmly on one side or the other of the controversial issue.

But in the end, it was up to commissioners to make the final decision on unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly called drones, and they were just as divided as the speakers.

The final vote was 3-2.

That allows airport and aviation authority members to pursue efforts from Space Florida – the state’s aerospace economic development agency – to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct drone research and testing at the airport.

Space Florida is pushing to get the FAA to choose Florida as one of six testing sites.

County Commissioners Dave Russell and Wayne Dukes voted against the measure.

“My gut says this is not good for our county,” Dukes said.

Dukes chastised staff for not providing timely details about the proposal and said he had to learn most of the details from the newspaper.

“Staff has a mission and they didn’t fulfill it,” Dukes said. “They made us look like idiots.”

Chairman Russell, who spoke against the measure at a meeting two weeks ago, said the same concern is there: lack of safety protocols for pilots and the public.

“Drones are going to happen and the technology will develop and some communities will benefit,” Russell said. “Having said all that, I think they need to be developed somewhere else.”

The swing vote was Commissioner Jim Adkins, who changed his mind from two weeks ago and opted to support Hernando County’s application.

Adkins said his change of heart occurred after meeting with airport officials and learning more about the proposal.

“The only reason I went with this is the knowledge that safety would be addressed and we can withdraw at any time,” Adkins said.

County Commissioner Diane Rowden, strongest supporter of the proposal who made the motion to accept the resolution, thanked Adkins for his support and vowed that the board would be kept in the loop throughout the process.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson seconded the motion.

Before the meeting, a small group of protesters outside the government center held signs saying, “No Drones,” or “No Drone Zone.”

Business Development Director Mike McHugh, in a presentation Tuesday, said Space Florida is developing a “code of conduct” Hernando County will be expected to follow for safety, should it be fortunate to be chosen.

Resident Robert Widmar said the drone industry is an $89 million industry.

“That’s a nice niche to get into,” Widmar said.

Palmieri said there is an element of the unknown and acknowledged the element of experimentation.

But he said it’s an experiment that could reap rewards for the county.

“We’re talking about a lot of jobs,” he said. “We’re talking about the future of Hernando County.”

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