21 September 2009
FAA air space designation touted as boon for BNAS reuse
By Seth Koenig,
Times Record Staff
BRUNSWICK, MAINE — A former Defense Department expert is calling for federal flight regulators to loosen restrictions on unmanned aircraft over Brunswick Naval Air Station.

But base redevelopment planners and Maine’s congressional delegation haven’t rallied behind the proposal, expressing concerns that accommodating drones in the skies over the Mid-coast region could come at the expense of piloted flights.

Eric Bleickena, a former official with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a brain trust that works to promote and develop new military technologies, said a special airspace with eased regulations would draw aerospace heavyweights — and scores of jobs — to the base property to test the latest in drone technology. He said the influx of unmanned aircraft developers triggered by a favorable Federal Aviation Administration designation would bring civilian jobs back to Brunswick after the Navy vacates the 3,200-acre base property between now and mid-2011.

“There’s enormous growth potential here for the state and for Brunswick,” said Bleicken. “We’re kind of in a position, based on what Maine has to offer, to be kind of a ‘Silicon Valley’ for unmanned flight.”

“The FAA is looking at probably half of all aircraft of one sort or another being unmanned within 15 years,” he continued. “We’re not at a place where we can test these things in most places in the country because of FAA regulations. I think the key to all of this is the airspace issue. If we can work with FAA and we can get some special use airspace designation, then we can become the place for everybody in the aerospace industry to do their research.”

Bleicken described current federal flight guidelines regulating unmanned aircraft as onerous, demanding 60 days’ notice before a drone can be put in the air, as well as the launch of a piloted tracking plane to trail the unmanned craft. He said restrictions like those make it difficult for aerospace leaders to make progress in their development of new drones.

“The goal would be to make it so that the protocol for flying an unmanned system is not much different than the protocol for flying a manned system — you go in a few hours ahead of time, and say ‘I want to fly from Point A to Point B,’” he said. “If you’re in the business of testing sensors that monitor carbon emissions, it’s currently an overwhelming process just getting that thing in the air.”

MRRA, Congress

The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority is currently working on a master reuse plan for the base aviation facilities, which it will submit to the Federal Aviation Administration for review. The authority hopes to be able to convince the FAA to grant it a no-cost takeover of the 750 acres of base property associated with the airfield, and then contract with a Fixed Base Operator to manage a civilian airport there.

Steve Levesque, executive director of the MRRA, said the FAA is already looking at ways to make its rules more friendly to unmanned aircraft, and agreed that Brunswick could be a good place for the FAA to test new protocols.

“We’re certainly going to look at that,” he said. “They’re looking at that right now, and in an area like this, where it’s much more rural, it makes some more sense for us.”

But while Levesque said he’s open to the idea of eased restrictions on drones, he also wants to protect the new airport’s attractiveness to private jets or piloted aircrafts needing customization work.

“(Unmanned aircraft are) one segment of the aerospace industry that we’re trying to support with the airfield,” he said. “We want to be able to support the whole spectrum.”

Julia Wanzco, spokeswoman for Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the senator has not been asked by the MRRA to engage in talks with the FAA on the topic of special airspace for drones. Wanzco said staff representing Snowe and other members of the delegation met with Bleicken and his colleagues last winter, at which time “Bleicken outlined their proposal and noted that they were seeking funding to study the feasibility of an unmanned flight center at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.”

“It is our understanding that the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority would support an airspace designation that provides for general aviation and unmanned uses,” Wanzco wrote in an e-mail to The Times Record. “However, they have consistently noted that they would not support a special airspace designation for unmanned aircraft that would prohibit general aviation uses because that would run counter to its redevelopment plan. All that being said, its plausibility is a question that is better directed to MRRA and the communities for a response.”

Willy Ritch, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, added that Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st District, and her staff “haven’t had any conversations with the FAA on the topic” either.

“We are aware that there has been some talk of bringing unmanned aerial vehicle research to Brunswick, but it’s been very preliminary,” he said.

The offices of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, did not respond to phone calls or e-mails seeking comment on the subject by press time.

‘Mixed messages’

The tepid response from Maine’s congressional delegation frustrates Bleicken, who has assembled a group of like-minded individuals under the company heading Grifin LLC. He said in order for his idea of a special drone testing zone — and its potential for associated jobs — to be implemented in Brunswick, the state’s congressional delegation would have to be unified in its pursuit of that goal in talks with the FAA.

“We’re getting mixed messages,” Bleicken said. “We’ve had kind of a lukewarm reception from the political world. From the technical community, there’s been an enormous amount of enthusiasm — people building sensors and things. The answer is: ‘When can we come and how much will it cost?’ Of course, we can’t give them those answers, but they see that everything’s here. It all comes back to one factor: Getting the airspace designation. And for that, you have to have a coordinated effort from your political people.”

Bleicken acknowledged that unmanned aircraft have been controversial in talks about the redevelopment of Brunswick Naval Air Station, as local peace advocates have argued that military drones have added to the civilian death toll in wars fought overseas. But he said research into the technology could be used for peaceful ends.

“Let’s say you wanted to track whales along the Maine coast: You put a sensor in a blimp that can stay up there days or weeks at a time, and you simply track the whales and transmit that data to a ship or a computer on land,” he said. “You could be watching for drug traffickers or forest fires. It really opens the door to many, many uses you can’t accomplish today that are non-military. And most of the military uses are non-lethal. There are systems that can fire rockets, but those are the exception, not the rule.”

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