South Jersey’s out-of-the-way location fuels drone dreams

Cape May New Jersey Commercial Drones

[Editor’s Note: Cape May County hosts a monthly innovation forum where drone industry challenges and developments are discussed.]

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Someday soon, drones may deliver Amazon and UPS packages, and even frozen yogurt, to your door. The unmanned aircraft are already in regular use surveying crops, searching for missing people and more missions that may have sounded like science fiction a few years ago.

So in South Jersey, officials and entrepreneurs are trying to turn the region’s remote, rural character — which always held it back from attracting job-creating industries — into a plus to draw drone companies.

Stockton Aviation Research & Technology Park Executive Director Joe Sheairs doesn’t expect drones to be a magic fix for the local economy.

But he knows the region is getting noticed. The center has missions booked this month with the Red Cross, which plans to use drones to map dangerous areas of the world, and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, among others, he said.

The park works closely with Cape May Airport and other local agencies and institutions to draw drone business to South Jersey. And the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which runs that airport, is joining Cape May County to sponsor a second Unmanned Aircraft Systems Conference Oct. 13-14 at Cape May Convention Hall.

Eddie Obropta hopes to be at those meetings. He went from Middle Township High School to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and majored in aerospace engineering. Shortly after he graduated, he co-founded Raptor Maps, a Boston-based startup that uses drones in agriculture, including analyzing minute details of the potato harvest in eastern Washington state.

For now, most of his work is in farming areas across the country, but he sees his old South Jersey home as the perfect place for many drone-based businesses to set up shop. He’d like to do that himself if he could, but with Raptor Maps’ current farming focus, that’s not practical because of the lack of large-scale farms in New Jersey.

Still, he knows South Jersey has a lot to offer drone companies. Where he lives now, in Boston, if he needs to field-test some new technology, he has to drive a solid hour out of the city.

“But if you’re at the Cape May County airport or in that area, you can open your door and do what you need to do,” Obropta says.

He sees the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, in Egg Harbor Township, and the U.S. Coast Guard base in Cape May as other resources that can draw a drone entrepreneur looking to start or expand a business.

Each month, Cape May County hosts an “innovation forum” for those in the field, drawing about 35 people per month to discuss challenges and developments in the science and business of drones.

“We try to follow what we consider the (early) Silicon Valley model … where innovators used to get together and swap ideas in a collaborative manner,” said Carole Mattessich, Cape May County’s economic development director.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimated in 2013 that drone-based businesses would generate $82.1 billion in economic impact between 2015 and 2025.

AUVSI put New Jersey’s share of that pie at about $1.6 billion, and projected 2,000 drone-related jobs in the state over those 10 years.

Atlantic Cape’s push into drones has included starting a course to train operators to fly under new FAA rules. And the initial classes have filled to capacity or beyond, says Jim Taggart, the faculty advisor to ACCC’s aviation program.

Taggart is also optimistic about drones’ economic potential: “It seems like every time you turn around, somebody has a new idea or a new use,” he says.

Still, he knows that South Jersey is hardly the only area of the country with these big drone dreams.

When he went to a University Aviation Association conference in Nebraska last week, Taggart says the number of people at the drone-related sessions he went to had almost tripled over those same sessions just a year earlier.


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