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A Textron Systems drone on a test flight Nov. 19 outside Blackstone, Virginia. Textron is joining an increasingly competitive market, as researches explore nonmilitary options for drone technology. (Photo courtesy of Textron)

Md. drone maker joins increasingly crowded skies

FAA authorizes test flights in Virginia

Mulling future commercial uses, a Maryland drone producer is testing out one of its models in Virginia airspace after winning regulatory approval for the exercises.

Rhode Island-based Textron Systems’ Unmanned Systems business in Hunt Valley markets its Aerosonde system primarily to Department of Defense customers, said David Phillips, vice president of Textron’s small/medium-endurance unmanned aircraft systems.

Textron is hoping that will change, now that the Federal Aviation Administration has given the company the go-ahead to team up with one of the six drone test-site operators the agency approved last year.

From two-pound models to 4,400-pound “optionally piloted vehicles,” the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership’s “launch and recovery” sites in Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia are hosting the test flights of drones made by more than two dozen companies.

They are joined most recently by Textron, which launched its first Aerosonde test flight in Blackstone, Virginia, on Nov. 19.

The Aerosonde has logged more than 90,000 flight hours largely in Afghanistan, Phillips said. Outside of military use, the system has also found commercial application in the oil and gas sector, flying payloads to check up on surroundings in unsecured drill sites, even monitor for pipeline leaks.

The test flights serve a dual purpose: They let Textron feel out the future commercial landscape of unmanned aircraft, while helping the FAA craft the rules that will eventually regulate them.

The earliest non-military drone applications in the U.S. will be in the agriculture and the utility sectors, said Rose Mooney, executive director of the partnership, which is led by Virginia Tech in cooperation with other academic, government and industry partners.

The Aerosonde’s specific advantages are in its size – 55 to 75 pounds in take-off weight – and the resulting endurance: It can remain in flight for more than 14 hours, Phillips said. It can operate through satellite communications as well as provide real-time streaming data down to a ground station. Its payload is capped at 20 pounds, and it can perform multiple operations in a single flight, he said.

“One of the benefits in this size aircraft is that you can do extremely long endurance and long distance missions,” Phillips said.

Other potential drone applications include aiding emergency services and emergency management operations.

As for Textron, the FAA green light is a business opportunity in the making.

“Our participation … is certainly significant because of what it’s ultimately preparing us for as a business,” a Textron spokesperson said, “which is our eventual ability to part in a much broader, yet-to-be imagined commercial market.”

Textron’s project comes amid a flurry of interest in drone research. Researchers at the University of Maryland’s engineering school hope to put the state at the forefront of the unmanned aircraft industry, in part through tests done at a site in California, St. Mary’s County.

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.

Researchers at the test site are authorized to fly the Talon 240, designed and manufactured by UAV Solutions Inc., of Jessup. The Talon 240 has a 20-foot wingspan and can fly for 3½ hours. The drone was designed for military and academic use, the university said.

UM tested the Talon 240 via the first use of its airworthiness process, modeled after the Navy’s standards for aircraft.