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Rather Than Shuttles, State Aerospace Leaders Envision Drones in Florida Skies

September 12, 2013 | WMFE - Imagine a future where drones cloud the sky as they monitor weather and traffic, survey vegetable crops, study water pollution, film major motion pictures and more. Florida aerospace industry leaders say that future is coming. They want the state to be one of six where the Federal Aviation Administration will test drones. Thirty-seven states are competing for the test site designations. Even if Florida doesn't get one, industry leaders say they're bringing drones to the state.

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[Photo: Hoverfly's Al and Stacey Ducharme say uncertainty over FAA regulations is slowing their business.]

Drones already are in Central Florida. Hoverfly sells three sizes of them, and more are under development.

Hoverfly is a start-up Central Florida company that designs and manufactures drones. An entry-level drone will run you about $10,000. In the air it looks like a toy plane Darth Vader might fly and sounds like a swarm of bees.

The largest weighs 22 pounds and retails for about $25,000. 

Al Ducharme and his wife Stacey established Hoverfly nearly three years ago. Within a week they sold out of their first manufacturing run.

"And so we were profitable and out of stock very quickly, and so we realized we had a market," Al Ducharme says.  

Professional filmmakers use Hoverfly's drones to shoot nature documentaries and reality shows like Hillbilly Handfishin' on Animal Planet.

Some people are afraid of drones. Al Ducharme sees it when he flies his drones in public.

"People bring their children over to see, and everyone wants to touch it and it's very exciting. And every once in a while we make the mistake, when someone asks us what it is, we'll say a drone. And they'll take a step back." 

But the Ducharmes believe in the future drones will be everywhere, like cell phones. They're not alone.

"Drones are our robots. They're our helpers. They're our friends."

Frank Dibello is president and chief executive officer of Space Florida, which submitted the state's application for a test site designation to the FAA.

He and other aerospace industry leaders envision the state as a Silicon Valley of drones, where companies like Hoverfly design and manufacture them, and innovators devise applications for them like tracking endangered animals, assessing hostage situations and things we can't imagine yet.

"Just the same way I'm trying to attract space business to Florida and other aerospace companies to Florida, we're going to be attracting people who are working in the robotic technology area," Dibello says.

The FAA wants to introduce drones into the national airspace. But first the agency has to test where drones can fly safely with manned planes, helicopters and other aircraft. The agency also will develop certification and air traffic requirements for drones.

Competition for the six test sites designations is fierce. The economic impact of drones in the national airspace is expected to be in the billions of dollars. That's attractive in Florida, where the end of the shuttle program in 2011 left a void in the aerospace industry.

"The biggest selling point for Florida is we have airspace resources that I would consider to be a national resource."

Tom Baptiste is president and executive director of the National Center for Simulation in Orlando. He says airspace from Patrick Air Force Base on the Space Coast to Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle is ideal for testing drones.

The FAA has allowed the limited use of drones for things like disaster relief and military training since 1990.

But Hoverfly's Al Ducharme says uncertainty over the FAA regulations is slowing his business. He says drones are flouishing in other countries.

"In Japan there's 24,000 drones being flown by some 10,000 pilots over crops."

Now the Ducharmes are working on a new drone for mainstream uses like agriculture. They say it will revolutionize the market – if they can sell it in the United States. 

The FAA began accepting applications for the six test site designations in February. The agency is expected to make a decision by the beginning of next year.



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