Bid to test unmanned aircraft key to St. Mary’s economic diversity

Having Maryland named as one of six sites in the country designated to test unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use could be a good starting point to diversify St. Mary’s County’s economy, some elected officials and community leaders believe.

The trick is getting everyone on board, and finding the right amount of investment and partnership from governments and businesses in the region to make a successful bid.

One plan on the table envisions a research park, a university presence and a strengthened economy still centered on Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said recently that a version of the plan called Southern Maryland 2020 requires an investment in education. With the right backers, he believes, it could boost Maryland’s chances of being designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as a test range for unmanned aerial systems. That, in turn, could secure the local economy and tax base.

The FAA plans to designate six sites by September 2015 to integrate commercial unmanned aerial systems into national air space, and the six sites approved would be the only areas approved for testing in civilian air space.

Maryland earlier joined with Virginia and New Jersey under the Mid-Atlantic Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium to bid to become one of those sites. That group fell apart sometime in recent months, according to sources.