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Drones are already being used for civilian purposes overseas. Japan and New Zealand use the unmanned aircraft to help them apply treatments to agricultural crops with greater precision.

Now, the United States is working to integrate drones into its own commercial air space. The economic potential is estimated to be $89 billion worldwide during the next decade, said Matt Scassero, director of the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site. He said Maryland could take part in that boon, with technology efforts here generating about $2 billion of those dollars and creating some 2,500 jobs in 10 years — “if we’re ready for it,” Scassero said.

And Southern Maryland could grab a significant chunk of that, Scassero and others believe, helping to diversify a local economy heavily dependent on military spending.

State and local leaders hope they’ve gotten one step closer to realizing that goal. Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia recently signed an agreement saying they will work together to land a highly competitive Federal Aviation Administration test site designation. Notification is expected by the end of the year.

If that bid is successful, that status would place the region among six total test sites focused on integrated drones, and all the technology needed to fly them, into civilian air space. The University of Maryland, Virginia Tech and Rutgers University will be partnering to carry out that work, which Hoyer said, “significantly strengthens our bid.”

Those same universities have worked for decades in advancing aviation research in partnership with the Navy, said Scassero, also former vice commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, headquartered at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The next steps, he said, “are up to us, to work together just as we have in the past.”

Scassero has been tapped to help pull it off, applying the same skills he said he used throughout his Navy career — being a pied piper, a town crier and chief executive officer in one, ensuring that everyone knows the vision, marches to the same drumbeat, all while he attempts to leverage other talent and resources.

But the tri-state partnership almost didn’t happen. First, the three states were ready to move forward together. Then the deal fell through, with separate applications submitted for the FAA bid.

Then, the deal came back together again, with the three states sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, pledging to work together if any of them were selected by the FAA.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) thanked Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) for working to “grow this coalition.” Hoyer said by phone Monday that he worked with legislators from each state “to, in effect, put Humpty Dumpty together again.” And, Hoyer said, Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) worked with the states helping to convey the benefits of their partnership.

Beyond the educational facilities, Hoyer said, the states also each possess state-of-the-art technical capabilities and workers with the experience to take on tasks the FAA deems necessary. Maryland has Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Webster Field Annex. Virginia has NASA’s Wallops Island station and Langley Research Center, along with a naval presence in Dahlgren. And New Jersey has the Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park.

This could benefit St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles counties “to a significant degree,” Bohanan said. “This really goes a long way to help us reach our goals in terms of diversifying.”

Pax River has long been the heartbeat of the local economy, with most aspects of local living dependent on what goes on inside of the Navy’s gates here. But the FAA designation, proponents say, could immediately begin to attract more researchers, engineers and business owners to the region to help develop a range of technology needed to integrate drones into national air space. Scassero said he anticipates the testing and research could, over time, grow into prototyping and manufacturing also being executed in Southern Maryland.

Drones have potential to be used in agriculture stateside, Scassero said, and more broadly in search and rescue missions, for cargo deliveries, and to measure the scope of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Scassero said he’s already working to establish an FAA test site. With much of the resources already in place, the remainder will happen through entrepreneurial meet-ups and prototyping competitions.

And it’ll happen over the long term with incubators and technology transfers, getting the right people in the right places, establishing and maintaining a core group and keeping all the players informed, he said.

“Our overall goals are to diversify the economy, grow the pie so everybody’s piece gets bigger and continue to make this a great place to live and work,” Scassero said. “We’re working on that now.”

nclark@somdnews.com