RICHMOND, Va. — Universities in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey were among those selected Monday to collaborate on developing test sites for drones, a technology one U.S. senator compared to the development of the cellphone.
Virginia was among six states named by federal officials as research sites offering diverse climates, geographic features and air traffic environments. The research will help guide the Federal Aviation Administration as it works to introduce commercial versions of the unmanned aircraft into busy U.S. airspace.
Led by Virginia Tech, the mid-Atlantic-based component of the national effort will also involve the University of Maryland and Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The news was welcomed in all three Mid-Atlantic states. A key proponent has been Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who was an early investor in cellphones decades ago when he said skeptics scoffed at the idea of using phones in cars.
"I have a feeling that unmanned vehicles could be the beginning of something huge," Warner said in an interview with The Associated Press. While he acknowledged the legitimate privacy concerns surrounding drones, Warner added, "This is a worldwide industry that's going to be developed and we have a chance to be one of the key spots for this development."
An industry-commissioned study predicts more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress eases drone restrictions on U.S. skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.
Virginia and New Jersey submitted a joint proposal from Virginia Tech and the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. The partnership includes academic, industry, state government and economic development organizations. The University of Maryland was the lead agency in that state, bringing together a similar team.
Virginia has awarded $1 million to Virginia Tech to operate an unmanned aircraft systems test site, and Gov. Bob McDonnell has recommended an additional $1.6 million over the next two fiscal years for the project.
The funding will transform the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership from a volunteer organization to a fully functional and revenue-producing organization, McDonnell's office said in a statement.
"With our partners, we firmly believe we can introduce this new technology the right way," said Jon Greene, interim director of the partnership. He is also associate director of Virginia Tech's Institute for Critical Technologies and Applied Science.
"Separately," Greene added, "the team members have flown unmanned aircraft systems for thousands of hours, and now we have joined together to conduct unmanned aircraft systems, research, development and test and evaluation activities."
In Virginia, NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton and the space agency's Wallops Flight Facility are expected to play roles in the drone research.
In Maryland, the Naval Air Warfare Center aircraft division at Naval Air Station Patuxent River has been involved in research and testing of unmanned aircraft.
While drones have been primarily used by the military, governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the market.
The FAA does not currently allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015. Officials concede the project may take longer than expected. The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years.
The growing use of drones has sparked criticism among conservatives and liberals who fear the creation of a surveillance state in which authorities track and scrutinize every move of citizens.
Warner said drones can be much more than that.
"People have it in their mind the image of what a drone is," he said. "You think about it as something you go after terrorists with or something out of science fiction movie, or a "Star Wars" movie. Unmanned vehicles are that, but they're so much more potentially."
He cited, for example, their use in delivering packages, during natural disasters or in agriculture.
Political leaders embraced their selection for the testing.
"Today's announcement brings the next frontier of aerospace research and development to New Jersey, and is an exciting opportunity for our state," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a written statement.
Maryland Gov. Margin O'Malley said the testing will "create jobs and generate a significant economic boon to the state, the region and the nation."