Commercial drones facility slated for Wicomico airport

Wicomico County officials are moving forward with plans to develop a commercial drone testing facility at the Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport as early as next year, making it the first airport in the country to develop this type of operation.

“We will be on the leading edge,” said Wayne Strausburg, the county’s director of administration. “We believe it’s a really big deal.”

The county was approached by officials at the Wallops Flight Facility where commercial drone testing and airspace are overwhelmed by the military, he said.

Salisbury offers a lot of unrestricted airspace that will allow more freedom for commercial operations, Strausburg said.

The county is planning to build a hangar for unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called UAVs or drones, that have wingspans up to 70 feet, said airport manager Dawn Veatch.

Several manufacturers are interested in operating there, including representatives of a West Coast company who will be meeting with Veatch on July 2, she said.

The goal is to make the Salisbury airport “a Mecca for drones,” Veatch said.

The hangar with a taxiway would anchor a planned industrial park at the airport. A new master plan for the airport that is currently awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval includes two 30,000-square-foot buildings, she said.

The operation is expected to have a $55 million impact on the region, bringing high-paying jobs and tax revenues to the county, Veatch said.

Companies that locate at the airport will be required to offer apprenticeships and internships.

“The idea is to grow our community,” Veatch said.

Strausburg said drones will play an integral part in commercial aviation in the not-too-distant future.

“There are serious discussions about passenger travel,” he said.

Manufacturers such as Boeing, which already makes drones for the military, are beginning to test unmanned helicopters that could serve as air taxis.

An unmanned helicopter developed by Ehang, a Chinese company, is closest to the market. Ehang hopes to launch an air taxi service in Dubai soon, according to DroneRush, a website that reports on the industry.

Construction on Salisbury’s drone facility is expected to start soon and open next spring, Veatch said.

It will among several planned improvements at the airport, including a runway extension to better accommodate jets.

Veatch said she also is in discussions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a disaster distribution center at the airport that could store medical supplies, diapers, water, nonperishable foods and other essential items.

The Eastern Shore is accessible only by bridges that are vulnerable in hurricanes or terrorist attacks, she said.

“We are not prepared on Delmarva for disaster,” she said.

Construction on a FEMA facility at the airport is at least a year away, after the runway extension is completed, she said.

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