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Called key to diversifying economy


Staff writer

The St. Mary’s County Regional Airport was filled Tuesday with visitors who came to celebrate an unmanned aircraft systems test center slated to be located on site.

The event was a milestone, organizers said, in establishing Southern Maryland as region ready to help the Federal Aviation Administration examine ways to integrate unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace.

About 200 people — from Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) to William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, Vice Adm. David Dunaway, head of the Naval Air Systems Command and local government and business leaders — filled a hangar, with its doors open to the sound of soaring aircraft, to mark the milestone.

“This is a very big deal,” said University of Maryland Provost Mary Ann Rankin, who spoke of people someday seeing small drones delivering packages to their front door steps, and about students who will work alongside some of the nation’s most forward-thinking minds to take concepts from drawings to applications that affect national security. For Maryland, much of that will began here, she said.

“We’re going to all look back on this day and say, ‘Wow, I was there,’” Rankin said.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently identified six centers nationwide to conduct research and testing to help drones share the skies with piloted aircraft. Maryland is partnering with Virginia and New Jersey to carry out part of that research.

In the coming weeks, test site offices in St. Mary’s will move to the county’s airport grounds. The University of Maryland also is slated to lease and then build hangar space there. And by 2018, the university plans to partner with the nearby Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, to build a center to house its research.

The test site, proponents say, will strengthen the local economy, attracting contracting firms focusing on technological advances and other work not tied solely to support of Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

“We’ve seen robust funding at Pax River,” said Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s). “But we knew that day would eventually end,” he said, making reference to American involvement in wars in the Middle East winding down and the ripple effects being felt here as defense spending wanes.

It has long been clear, Bohanan said, that the economy of St. Mary’s needed to be diversified. But for years, the region lacked a university research center that could help scientists and engineers conduct the studies needed to drive a new industry.

On Tuesday, the University System of Maryland made its support of the research center, and its commitment to the region, clear. The ribbon cutting “underscores the remarkable potential this test site is poised to make,” Kirwan said. It’s all coming together around what he called “a grand vision,” that can have a great impact on Maryland and on the nation. The university, Kirwan said, sees a large role in conducting research for the project.

The goal, Kirwan said, is to make this region a “hotbed” of technical leadership and commercial activity.