ASSURE's Executive Director, James Poss, talks Unmanned Aerial Systems with the Wall Street Journal

March 29, 2016

Officials Hope test site in Rome, N.Y. will help establish industry in region and boost the ecomomy
Story written by Corrine Ramey, WSJ writer.

Eric Haines flies an Indago drone during testing
in Rome, N.Y.
PHOTO: Richard Beaven for the Wall Street Journal
ROME, N.Y.— A 5-pound drone took off from an airfield in upstate New York and steadily climbed to about 100 feet. The craft, a Lockheed Martin Indago, soared for 10 minutes over pine trees and grassy fields, following a flight path programmed into a laptop, before landing at the feet of its pilot.

The Rome site is one of six designated across the U.S. by the Federal Aviation Administration to test unmanned aircraft systems, and it is at the heart of a plan to use drones to jump-start the upstate region's lagging economy.

Local officials, businesses and CenterState CEO, a regional economic-development organization, have been working together over the past several years to position the area as a nationwide hub of commercial drone research, testing and manufacturing.

"That's the $80 billion question," said James Poss, executive director of a FAA research coalition known as the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence.

Those rooting for the drone industry are also betting that the government will devise regulations—allowing drones to deliver packages, monitor crops and find missing people—that will set the framework for what many see as a lucrative race for the lower 1,000 feet of the sky.

A Goldman Sachs report earlier this month said the global drone market would reach $100 billion by 2020, with $21 billion of that from commercial drones. Last week, the FAA estimated sales of commercial drones would grow from 600,000 this year to 2.7 million in 2020.

The hoped-for foundations of a drone industry upstate are coming together across a six-county region that includes cities such as Syracuse and Utica. Companies already in the area, which has an Air National Guard base, include Lockheed Martin Corp., Saab Sensis Corp. and SRC Inc., among others.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a contract with Oneida County, which owns the test site, for up to $5 million over five years. A nonprofit known as NUAIR Alliance, which manages the test site, will research unmanned and autonomous flight technologies.

Beyond the test site, many companies involved focus on technology that will allow drones to detect and avoid each other aloft, and the eventual air-traffic control system that will be needed.

"To be able to allow the Domino's pizza delivery drone to keep from hitting the Amazon package drone at the corner still has to be developed," said Larry Brinker, executive director and general counsel of NUAIR, which coordinates about 90 business, government and academic institutions collaborating on regional drone efforts.

In December 2015, the plan got a further boost when the central New York region was awarded $250 million for drone initiatives through the Update Revitilization Initiative.

The state funding will go toward building an indoor testing and certification facility, developing an air-traffic management system and policy research.

The management system essentially creates "highways in the sky for UAS," said Oneida County Commissioner of Aviation Russell Stark, using the acronym for unmanned aircraft systems.

The big need and challenge in developing a traffic-management system is to help drones fly safely beyond the line of sight, said Parimal Kopardekar, principal investigator for NASA's UAS Traffic Management.

Among other things, the indoor facility would replicate environmental conditions, such as wind, dust, fog or snow, said Craig ‎Marcinkowski, director of strategy and business development at Gryphon Sensors LLC, a detection and surveillance company.

In December 2013, the FAA named Griffiss International Airport in Rome, a decommissioned air base dating to the 1940s, as one of the six test sites nationwide. The designation came with no major funding, but it provided a morale boost for the region, said Robert Simpson, president of CenterState CEO. The area has been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs that once offered reliable employment.

"This is a region that doesn't always rise to the top," Mr. Simpson said. "What business leaders have always wanted is a way to be at the vanguard."

Al Lock of SRC Inc. stands in one of the near field Anechoic chanbers used for testing in Syracuse.
PHOTO: Richard Beaven for the Wall Street Journal
Not everyone is on board. "We have a serious poverty problem, and this industry is not too accessible to people who are making low wages and are poor," said Howie Hawkins, a longtime Green Party politician who ran for governor in 2014. "There are opportunity costs when you put all your eggs in that basket."

But economic development is never an exact science, noted Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente. "In order to grow you have to have a broad vision and have to be bold," he said.

The initiative is still in its early stages. One company has moved to the area, Pro Drones USA LLC. Local officials say they are in talks with others.

In the coming weeks at the Rome test site, a group called Project Lifesaver is scheduled to use a modified version of the Indago to test finding patients with dementia. A separate trial will involve the first flight at the site with multiple aircraft in the air simultaneously. The goal is simple: no crashes.

Write to Corinne Ramey at Corinne.Ramey@wsj.com