CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – Cape May County has obtained a Certification of Authorization (COA) to operate drones, or unmanned aviation systems (UAS), in an 800 square mile airspace around the Cape May Airport, officials announced last week.
County Director of Economic Development Carole Mattessich introduced David Yoel from American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. (AATI), who presented the COA to industry stakeholders, academics, government and emergency management officials at a Feb. 17 meeting. Yoel said the county has been authorized to hire private operators to fly UAS in the 800 square miles of airspace around Cape May County. The county alone is about 300 square miles, he said.
“The COA covers a significant amount of area of ocean and bay,” he said.
Yoel said the county’s public safety mission extends beyond its borders. The COA could be adjusted for emergency situations, such as during natural disasters, he said.
While the COA allows UAS flight in a rather large area, Yoel said the county is prevented from operating in the Class C airspace around Atlantic City. Class C airspace is from the surface to about 4,000 feet above the airport. Yoel said they simply eliminated a corner of the area they applied for to avoid the Class C airspace.
Yoel said another restriction is there should be no UAS flight over populated areas. He said one of the key features that played a role in Cape May County’s COA approval is its low population level. He said a lower population means a lower risk due to operation. However, he said, there are still many challenges in operating UAS in civilian airspace, which is part of the reason Cape May Airport was selected as a UAS test site.
“This is a good area to test UAS operations,” he said.
Yoel said in a testing operation at the Cape May Airport they operated a UAS for 90 minutes and contacted 13 manned aircraft during that time. He said they communicated with the aircraft from the ground as they would any manned aircraft.
“It was actually more routine than expected,” he said.
He said while they are prevented from flying over populated areas, there are many ways to get to the ocean and bay. He also said there are basically two ways to visually observe the UAS – by having an observer on the ground, or having an in-flight observer, either which is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He said during an emergency they would request a waiver for an in-flight observer.
In response to a question from the audience, Yoel said it took from May 2016 to January 2017 to get the COA for Cape May County, but he said he was responsible for much of the delay.
“The FAA turnaround was very quick,” he said.
The county presented two short videos of UAS flight testing at the Cape May Airport, including the AATI drone, which has a 17-foot wingspan. One video talked about connecting first responders with communications in a situation where they lost them, effectively using the drone as a communications tower. The video said the UAS could provide communication coverage where it might otherwise not be.
Marty Pagliughi, county Office of Emergency Management coordinator, said the two biggest uses for UAS in terms of emergency management would be communications and damage assessment.
“They can provide live situation reports, live stream situation reports and damage assessments, and show access points for emergency service vehicles,” he said.
Pagliughi said the county hopes to be able to link UAS to the county’s 700 MHz communication system.
He said the biggest use of UAS for the county would probably be to survey storm damage to Cape May County beaches, measuring the loss of sand, for which they would apply for state and federal dollars to rebuild.