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Hernando County: Cape Canaveral West?

Published:   |   Updated: April 5, 2013 at 10:40 PM

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Gary Schraut says the possibility of drone testing at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport could lead to 700-plus high-tech jobs and a $10-30 million infusion into the local economy.

The aviation chairman bases that on the billions that would be divvied up among the fortunate counties selected by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be test sites.

“We easily have the potential of being Cape Canaveral West,” Schraut said.

Schraut has already made a believer of County Commissioner Nick Nicholson, who told Hernando Today he did a complete about-face about drones after talking with the aviation chair.

Nicholson, who was non-committal during last week’s county commission meeting when the subject was brought up and summarily discarded, said he hopes his colleagues will reconsider the idea.

“I think we should do it,” Nicholson said.

The matter is back on the agenda Tuesday. But Nicholson and colleagues will first have to convince chairman Dave Russell, the strongest opponent of drone testing last week and who, as of Thursday, hasn’t changed his mind.

He is unconvinced that getting into the drone testing business will be the economic boon Schraut and supporters claim.

“I haven’t seen hard numbers on that,” he said.

Commissioners last week rejected the idea of applying to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which is considering six drone testing sites.

Russell and others present feared for residents’ safety and the untested technology and operational protocols of drones.

Others, including Schraut and Commissioner Diane Rowden — the most vocal supporter on the board — said the county could at least explore the idea before rejecting it out of hand.

But will that discussion matter at this point?

Hernando County did not make a stringent federal deadline to apply for drone testing and it is unlikely the government will make any exceptions. But Schraut said Thursday there may be another opportunity to jump into the program and will outline that at Tuesday’s meeting.

Paul Douglas, president of the local NAACP branch, said he was involved with drones —also called unmanned aerial vehicles — when he worked as a contractor for the federal government.

“These drones are as safe as you can get,” Douglas said.

Douglas said Hernando County missed out on millions by not trying to get a piece of the drone testing.

Russell said the safety of residents outweighs any perceived economic benefit. The chances of one or more of these drones crashing over a populated area of the county are real, he said.

Douglas called Russell’s opposition “nothing but a scare tactic.”

Drone technology has been refined from its initial use in the Vietnam War. They are hard to detect, carry high-tech equipment and can be used in search and destroy missions without putting human life in danger.

A Florida senate report, released last month, said the U.S. Army acquired a 1.8 gigapixel camera to use on its drones which can track objects on the ground from 65 miles away while the vehicle is flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet.

Drones range in size from wingspans of 6 inches to 246 feet and can weigh from about 4 ounces to more than 25,600 pounds and can be controlled manually or through an autopilot.

The FAA approved the use of drones to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department to use in high-risk incidents, such as barricaded suspects or hostage situations, or to find missing persons.

Polk County officials decided after a year of drone trials that the costs of meeting FAA regulations were too high and halted use of its fixed-wing model drone in 2010, the report said.

The Miami-Dade Police Department recently renewed its certificate for drones for another two-year period.

The non-profit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) released the results of a study last month showing the unmanned aircraft industry will create more than 70,000 new jobs in the first three years and 100,000 by 2025.

In the first three years, the total economic impact could surpass $13.6 billion, the report said.

Manufacturers and suppliers from the sale of new products will reap benefits and the taxes and monies that flow into communities will support local businesses and create high-paying jobs, the report said.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for an industry, developing technology that will benefit society, as well as the economy,” Michael Toscano, president & CEO of AUVSI said in a press release.

Matt Schnackenberg, chair of the Libertarian Party of Hernando County, also opposed drone testing in Hernando County, saying the unmanned craft could crash, possibly into a school full of staff and students.

Not everyone agrees that drones or even the testing of unmanned aircraft will be an economic panacea.

Local activist Brian Moore sent a letter to Russell expressing his appreciation for his strong opposition to pursuing an application for an FAA testing station.

“Please know that we are at your side on the airport FAA application issue, and that we are prepared to defend your actions, speak up on your behalf and to even take to the streets if necessary, should there be a circumvention of your position,” wrote Moore, chairman of the Nature Coast Coalition for Peace and Justice.

County Commissioner Jim Adkins said he won’t make a decision either way until Tuesday’s discussion.

Adkins said he was briefed about drones from Airport Manager Don Silvernell and Office of Business Development Director Mike McHugh this week and came away with a better understanding.

Residents, he said, don’t have to worry about drones falling out of the sky.

“That isn’t going to happen,” he said.

(352) 544-5290

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