The buzz on drones: South Jersey hopes to soar on unmanned wings
Eddie Obropta went from Middle Township High School to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he majored in aerospace engineering. After he graduated from MIT, he started back there working on a Ph.D., but then left school to co-found Raptor Maps, a startup company that works with drones.
Now Obropta travels the country using that unmanned aircraft system technology on agriculture. But as he thinks about where he grew up, he sees South Jersey as a perfect place for many drone-based businesses to set up shop.
Boston, his home now, has great technology and engineering resources, as do other major cities. But to actually test-drive a new drone feature, it takes him a good hour’s trip out of Boston to reach a “really remote airfield,” unless he can find friendly property owners who don’t [mind] Raptor Maps’ chief technology officer flying drones at their places.
“If you’re at the Cape May County Airport or in that area, you can open your door and do what you need to do,” Obropta said Friday, from eastern Washington state, where his company’s drones help analyze minute details of the fall potato harvest.
Plus he sees the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, in Egg Harbor Township, and the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May as other resources this area provides drone entrepreneurs looking to start or expand their businesses.
South Jersey is busy these days trying to turn its remote, rural character — which has historically held the region back from attracting job-creating industries — into an asset as the area works to become a hub for drone companies.
“Our overriding mission here is economic development. The flying part is cool, but this is about jobs,” says Joe Sheairs, the executive director of the Stockton Aviation Research & Technology Park. The aviation park is a neighbor of the FAA’s Tech Center, and it works closely with Cape May County Airport and other local agencies and institutions to draw drone businesses to South Jersey.
A drone-industry umbrella group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, estimated in 2013 that drone-based businesses would generate an economic impact of $82.1 billion nationwide in the decade between 2015 and 2025.
AUVSI put New Jersey’s share of that pie at about $1.6 billion, and projected that drones would create about 2,000 new jobs in the state over those 10 years. So different regions are trying hard to get their share of those jobs and dollars.
The Delaware River and Bay Authority, which runs Cape May County’s airport, and the county itself are set to sponsor a second Unmanned Aircraft Systems Conference Oct. 13 and 14 at Cape May Convention Hall.
Plus for more than a year, the county has hosted a monthly “innovation forum” for people in the drone field. Carole Mattessich, Cape May County’s economic development director, says an average of 35 people show up to talk about new developments and challenges in the science and business of drones.
“We try to follow what we consider the (early) Silicon Valley model … where innovators used to get together and swap ideas in a collaborative manner,” Mattessich said.
And Atlantic Cape Community College has made a push of its own into drones, including starting classes to train operators to fly under new FAA rules announced in June.
Jim Taggart is an ACCC professor in information science, and the faculty advisor to the college aviation program. He says the first drone class opened last winter.
This semester, the teachers decided to limit the drone-flying class to 15 seats.
“But we ended up signing in a couple of extra students, because they begged us,” Taggart said. “One is driving down twice a week from Paramus (Bergen County). And five students, this is the first (ACCC) course they ever came to.”
So he’s excited about the growth possibilities for drones — “It seems like every time you turn around, somebody has a new idea or a new use,” Taggart says, but he knows that South Jersey is hardly the only area of the country where officials and institutions are getting together and trying to draw drone jobs.
He went to a University Aviation Association conference in Nebraska last week, and the same group’s convention a year earlier.
In 2015, he went to sessions on drones with six or so other people, “but this time there were about three times as many people in the same meetings,” Taggart said.
Back at Stockton’s aviation center, Sheairs doesn’t expect drones to be the magic fix for South Jersey’s economy. But he knows the region is getting noticed, because his center has missions booked this month with the Red Cross, which plans to use drones to make maps of dangerous areas of the world, and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
“We have,” Sheairs says, “some serious customers coming to the table.”