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Unmanned aircraft test site to open in St. Mary’s County

Researchers at the University of Maryland’s engineering school hope to put Maryland at the forefront of the unmanned aircraft industry, and they said a new test site in St. Mary’s County will help them get there.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site will be used for research and product development focused on integrating autonomous aircraft into the country’s airspace.

The A. James Clark School of Engineering will manage the site, but government agencies and the private sector will also participate in various projects there once activities get underway later this year.

“We’re talking to a lot of different agencies about possible projects here for the very near future,” said Matt Scassero, the test site’s director. “Within a year, there will be resident researchers working here but also test teams from government, industry, other universities, our own university — wherever.”

But for now, just three UM researchers are based at the site, doing primarily office work. The Clark school held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday for their temporary office inside the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport.

They’ll soon move into a facility being built adjacent to the airport, Scassero said.

At first, aircraft testing will be conducted across the Chesapeake Bay at Crisfield Municipal Airport in Somerset County but will eventually move back to St. Mary’s.

Other test sites will be set up in other locations depending on the project, Scassero said. Some activities could take place in other states, he said, but researchers are concentrating on Maryland.

Some projects will involve research on unmanned aircraft themselves and the systems that control them, while others will explore potential applications for the aircraft, such as in agriculture and public safety, Scassero said.

As a member of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which includes Virginia and New Jersey, Maryland established the test site through the Federal Aviation Administration UAS Test Site program.

The new site is located just a few miles from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, home to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) headquarters.

Scassero, who worked at NAS Pax River for more than a decade, and others said having the UAS Test Site in the same area will allow experts to share resources and collaborate on different projects.

“This new addition to the St. Mary’s County Technology Corridor is the first step toward a larger autonomous research initiative in the region,” said Del. John Bohanan, who represents St. Mary’s, in a statement.

The UAS Test Site will enable researchers to build on existing NAVAIR projects and expertise, Scassero said.

“NAVAIR [and its divisions] use defense contractors to do a lot of their work, whether it’s research, prototyping, manufacturing — so we’re looking to use those same industry folks but pivot toward the commercial and civil market to do similar but different work,” he said.

“We’re hoping to reposition the work we already do here into a different sphere, to enable Maryland to be a leader in the UAS industry.”