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Unmanned aerial systems are “the world of the future,” said Matt Scassero, a former Navy aviator working to obtain an FAA designation establishing Maryland as one of six locations where unmanned aircraft can be tested in civilian airspace.

That designation could be announced as early as the end of the year. While there wouldn’t be money attached to the award at first, Scassero said, it would give St. Mary’s the blessing to do the work, provide guidelines and would likely attract jobs to St. Mary’s.

It could also move the community away from its heavy dependence on Defense Department spending, industry leaders say. The great majority the St. Mary’s economy is tied to what happens at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Civilian use of unmanned aircraft is expected to be incorporated into national air space by 2015 — although to what degree has not been fully defined, Scassero said.

He was the keynote speaker Wednesday at a Maryland Economic Development Association summer conference, focusing on aviation’s influence on industry, held at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center in California.

Scassero retired as a captain who helped lead the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Pax River. Now at the University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering, Scassero is using the technical knowledge and team-building, goal-setting skills learned in the military.

He’s courting local government, industry and the Navy, seeking input and teamwork as he drafts a plan to gain the FAA designation. “We’ve got tremendous, tremendous capability,” Scassero said. St. Mary’s should be able to prove to the FAA that the region is ready. “We’ve been doing exactly what they want us to do for two decades.”

Bonnie Green, executive director of The Patuxent Partnership, said it’s a blessing that the FAA requires public entities create their own proposals to obtain a test site designation. It increases opportunities for different levels of government, and the business and technical community, to collaborate. The synergy, new business opportunities and potential for more jobs, could attract young talent to the community and give them a reason to stay, she said.

In reality, Scassero said, “very little is unmanned in unmanned aviation.” People develop and sustain the technology, conduct testing and push capabilities forward to address client needs.

If Maryland receives the designation, the FAA would give 180 days for the site to be operational, Scassero said. Right now, he’s developing a small team that would likely include experts in testing, operations, risk management and, depending on the project, research.

With that team, he’d be prepared to develop test site plans with the university, the Navy and nearby airports to create a “public access test site” this summer. The goal is to “show that we’re actually up and running,” Scassero said in an earlier interview.

The type of testing performed locally would depend on what customers are looking for, which could include anything from looking at the performance of individual sensors used in agriculture and public safety to understanding the way entire unmanned systems operate in a shared airspace.

There will be “some big developments,” Scassero said. “We’ve come an incredibly long way, and we have a long way to go.”

nclark@somdnews.com