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Proposal for Drone Tests in Northern Maine Fails to Get off Ground
04/19/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Much is still up in the air when it comes to "unmanned aerial vehicles," or drones. But one thing that's become more clear is that the state of Maine will not be taking part in the Federal Aviation Administration's push to introduce UAVs into the airspace overhead. A group of industry and municipal leaders from northern Maine say the area is perfect for a drones testing project. But as Jennifer Mitchell reports, their proposal to participate in the project never really got off the ground.

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September 2015: That's the date set by Congress for the Federal Aviation Administration to have UAVs, or drones, integrated with regular manned aircraft in national airspace. The former Loring Airforce Base in Limestone came into the potential list of sites relatively late, and the last several months have been spent trying to pull together a proposal.

Making Aroostook County a test site was expected to attract more aerospace businesses to the Loring development region. But now, due to a lack of funding, the proposal is off the table.

"For Maine not to be a part of that - it's really a loss for the state," says Karl Hoose, president of Applied Thermal Sciences or ATS, an engineering company based in Sanford.

Hoose was among those leading the charge to make Maine one of the six test sites. The drones working group, which included municipal leaders from Aroostook County and the Loring Development Authority, was asking the state for about $350,000 to be used to determine feasibility, and to create the required proposal to present to the FAA. But the group's request for funds was denied by the Maine Technology Institute.

Hoose says that MTI had never dealt with such a project before, and didn't know how to handle it. Additionally, he says MTI was concerned that study money would be spent on out-of-state consultants.

"They just didn't feel comfortable with that," he says. "But, for this kind of program, it was very shortsighted. They should have looked at the bigger picture and what was possible in terms of grabbing a portion of this 80 some-odd billion dollar market that was going to sprout from this."

A spokesman from the Maine Technology Institute was not available for comment. But according to Hoose, of the roughly $350,000 dollars requested, about half would have gone to two companies, one of which was ATS in Maine; the other company had agreed to establish offices in Maine if the proposal were to be successful. The other consultants were based in Florida and Australia.

Robert Dorsey, from the Aroostook Partnership for Progress, agrees that the lack of state support for the project is a significant setback. "Yes it's disappointing," he says. "But at the same time, maybe now we have a little bit more time to strategize and look to the future, and maybe the next time the issue comes up, we'll be better prepared."

And it will come up again, says Karl Hoose. He says that it's not a matter of whether drones will enter Maine's airspace but when, and the question is whether the state will see it as an opportunity to develop an industry from it.

Scott Wardwell, airport director in Presque Isle, agrees. "We have a pretty coordinated effort to really let people outside of New England know what we have here, and we're hopeful the interest is going to build," he says.

That includes tentative talks with an aerospace company to possibly relocate to the Loring area.

But the question of whether expanding drone use will be welcomed by Mainers still remains to be seen. A bill, LD 236, is currently tabled in the Judiciary Committee.

Exactly how unmanned aerial vehicles will be used in the state still isn't clear amid concerns over safety and citizen privacy, but Wardwell, who sits on the LD 236 work group, says he's pleased with "the direction" the bill is taking.



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