Drones may be boon to local economy
HIGHLANDS COUNTY - When drones make the news, it’s often because the unmanned aerial vehicles killed a terrorist in another country. In the future, though, some Highlands County officials see drones helping farmers check on the health of their crops to assisting traffic engineers in helping manage the flow of traffic. Mike Willingham, executive director of Sebring Regional Airport, and Stephen C. Weeks, executive director of the Industrial Development Authority and the Economic Development Commission, envision that the market for such drones will grow rapidly and that Highlands County could be ground zero. “This is going to be a big industry and there is no reason it can’t be done in central Florida,” Willingham said.The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates allowing civilian drones into the national airspace will produce an economic benefit “of more than $13.6 billion in the first three years and will grow sustainably for the foreseeable future, cumulating to more than $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025.” Willingham envisions that drone manufacturers could locate on Sebring Regional Airport’s parkway and that permission could be sought for airspace to be available for testing the drones. “This is still in the very embryonic stage,” he said, adding that he and Weeks plan to make presentations to city and county officials. They have a lot more work to do. That includes getting the community behind the effort, attracting manufacturers, getting a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow testing in some air space at the airport and working with the military for possible use of air space at the Avon Park Air Force Range. Weeks said the county has the assets to benefit from the development of the technology. One of those are large areas of undeveloped land. If a drone is being tested and it crashes, the much preferable landing area is vacant ground, he added. There are also concerns, Willingham said, about making sure that such drones don’t cross paths with airplanes. Another possible component is the Avon Park Air Force Range. Willingham said they plan to talk to the military about the possibility that drones manufactured in Highlands County could be tested there. The key would be to find times when the military is not conducting operations. “It would have to be well-coordinated with them,” Willingham said. “We certainly don’t want to interfere with their primary objective.” The drones would not necessary be large and an individual could launch them, Weeks said. Typically, the drones would stay in the air for a couple of hours or so, but that could eventually change, he added. Other counties have also discussed drones. In Hernando County, people opposed it, fearing the government would use drones to monitor them. Weeks dismisses such concerns. While he said that may be possible, he added that the government can do that now with satellites, and ground cameras. He noted that some towns have street cameras and businesses use surveillance now to prevent crimes. The efforts of Weeks and Willingham aren’t alone. The Federal Aviation Administration wants to create six areas across the country where drones are researched and tested. A Florida organization completely separate from the local effort is submitting an application. Willingham said there could be some future cooperative efforts with that organization and Highlands County. The Tampa Tribune contributed to this story.