- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - The small, remote-control helicopters hovering in a conference room took on the look of fun flight at a hobby store. But when mounted with video cameras and with further development by a Jacksonville company and others, the aircraft could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new commerce for Florida.

While the Aviation Systems Engineering Co. has provided military applications for unmanned drones since 2004, it is trying hard to use different terminology while developing a testing, observation, training and research site for commercial drones. Wary of associating the unmanned aircraft with their lethal military reputation, ASEC officials speak of remote-control helicopters and fixed-wing planes for use in agriculture, public safety and real estate, among other potential applications.

Most of the unmanned aircraft under consideration for commercial use now weigh less than 55 pounds, similar to recreational model unmanned aircraft. But the potential for development could broaden to aircraft that could be nearly as large as manned airplanes.

The applications can range from crop dusting and monitoring of agricultural land, to observation of devastated areas after a disaster, to helping police get a fix of the area in hostage situations, to displays and observations of real estate properties, among other uses.

ASEC Program Manager Brent Klavon said that while the company already generates about $30 million in annual revenue for developing operating systems for military aviation, mainly for the U.S. Navy, the company is preparing for a share of what many in the aeronautics field believe will be a vast commercial market that could amount to a $632 million boost to the commercial market for unmanned aircraft systems in the Sunshine State, according to estimates from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The same economic study suggested the unmanned aircraft systems industry could generate 3,251 jobs in Florida alone in three years.

Estimates for the economic impact on the U.S. are much larger.

“The figures are kind of crazy big and they usually have a ‘B’ with a billion behind them,” Klavon said. “Everywhere you see for a potential bird’s-eye view or the elimination of a ladder to go up on a roof . you could use one of these things.”

As the industry develops standards for creating the systems, the key to opening the commercial market will be the regulations that the Federal Aviation Administration is formulating.

That’s the sticking point: Flying unmanned remote-control aircraft beyond recreational use is illegal in the United States. But as the FAA and other regulators grapple with the legalities, companies such as ASEC continue to prepare for the new market that should come in 2015, according to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. Two types of unmanned systems already have been approved for commercial use in the northern areas of Alaska.

The FAA declined to respond to questions in a phone interview. But the FAA website shows that a “road map” on how to deal with unmanned aircraft is under heavy consideration.

“Unmanned aircraft offer new ways for commercial enterprises and public operators to increase operational efficiency, decrease costs and enhance safety; and this road map will allow us to safely and efficiently integrate them into the (national air space),” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says on the website.

ASEC officials hope to become a testing and research company, one that the aircraft manufacturers and developers will employ to refine the systems.

In the meantime, ASEC is providing in-kind services for Space Florida, which is developing space and aeronautical commercial interests in the state. Government-funded Space Florida is based at Cape Canaveral.

Jax Chamber President Daniel Davis said many in the business community are following the unmanned-aircraft developments closely. He acknowledged that many are unaware of the potential commercial impact, but the unknowns make the drone development attractive.

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