Cape May Flexes Its Drone Muscles with FAA-Sanctioned Humanitarian Test Flight

Photo: Drone flight takes off. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Drone flight takes off. | Esther Surden

On June 22, a number of institutions — including the United Nations, American Red Cross, NJIT and tech startup Luftronix (Franklin Lakes) — came together in Cape May to conduct the first FAA-sanctioned U.S. ship-to-shore drone delivery.  NJ TechWeekly.com attended the demonstration.

The event, which took place at the Cape May ferry terminal (and at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum, where there was an indoor demonstration inspection flight), showed the capacity of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to provide lifesaving aid to victims of a disaster, such as a hurricane or a system-wide failure of electrical or communications infrastructure.

Coordinating the effort was Utah-based Field Innovation Team. Team founder Desiree Matel-Anderson hosted the event, which was the result of work done by Cape May County, NJIT, Field Innovation Team and Luftronix with the goal of answering the question: “How do we work with robotics to save lives?”

Luftronix, which was cofounded by CEO Denise Spell, also CEO of Currant (Newark), a company that helps emergency organizations coordinate their efforts during disasters, unveiled its precision indoor navigation drone technology at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. The startup demonstrated the technology by us­ing a drone to in­spect an F-14 fighter jet located indoors at the museum. [See story here.]

Five agencies of the United Nations were represented, as they wanted to see how drones could support their missions.

At the main demonstration, in Cape May, the groups worked with doctors from Johns Hopkins to simulate a delivery of medical supplies to a barge in the ocean, using a drone from Nevada-based drone-delivery startup Flirtey

Flirtey flew medical samples for emergency testing between an improvised onshore medical relief camp at Cape May and a test facility on a vessel stationed off the coast. The delivery drone was supported by another drone, which videoed the mission and provided live information about the land and sea environment to the worker drone. Conducting this round trip, Flirtey’s drones showed they could deliver medical supplies from the offshore barge to the onshore camp.

There was high drama as observers watched the drones carry out their missions, narrated by the participants. The ship-to-shore demonstration came off without a hitch, despite 18-knot winds and choppy seas.

Photo: Rutgers demonstrated a drone that could go fly, dive under water, then fly again. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Rutgers demonstrated a drone that could go fly, dive under water, then fly again. | Esther Surden

Also, Rutgers University Professor F. Javier Diez-Garias and Ph.D. candidate Marco M. Maia, of Westfield, demonstrated a drone that can fly, then go underwater and come out of the water to fly again. Their unit, called the “Naviator,” was developed by the mechanical engineering and aerospace department at Rutgers, said Diez-Garias.

 “This is a prototype. This is a first,” he added. “It’s exciting because it can be used for search-and-rescue and port security operations. It can be used for any number of aerial and aquatic applications.”

According to William Marshall, assistant vice-president for government and military relations at NJIT, the event grew out of an agile strategy session that the university held in Cape May in July 2015.

“At that time we set an agenda. Since that time, we’ve been lucky that Congressman [Frank] LoBiondo [NJ-2] has been behind this 100 percent.” He noted there had been an ongoing team effort, including Rutgers, in support of this event.

“What is really important is that we are now exercising New Jersey elements in New Jersey. It’s funny, this is the home of Einstein and Edison, and we go to Iowa for a piece of technology,” said Marshall. “What’s wrong with that picture?  Bell Labs and Bell Works are right around the corner. There are a lot of great minds here. A lot of the work you are going to see here is extremely innovative.”

Matt Sweeny, CEO of Flirtey, spoke about the significance of the event: “The way we look at it, this will be the first of millions of drone deliveries that will take place all across the United States in the years to come.” He added that, while the drone delivery that day was based on a humanitarian use case, it will “pave the way for commercial deliveries in the not-too-distant future.”

Fovea Aero Systems (Medford) President Jeff Sassinsky said that using drones for disaster relief was important because “they don’t put other people in harm’s way.” He said that this demonstration was a perfect example of the two things drones can do: deliver supplies such as medicines to a disaster area and gather information that is available from a disaster area. “If you can’t see the ground and you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know how to implement a relief scenario.”

Prior to the flight, Scott A. Green, executive director of the  Delaware River and Bay Authority, discussed how the DRBA had participated in meetings each month for about a year and a half focusing on how to develop the drone business in Cape May County.

Kevin Gallagher, president and CEO of Simulyze (Reston, Va.), discussed how his company had supported the flights in Cap May, processing the data behind the scenes, including information on approaching ship traffic and other aircraft. “We are trying to support safe flight operations in integration with the national air space,” he said.

Photo: Representatives from the FAA supported the drone effort. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Representatives from the FAA supported the drone effort. | Esther Surden

Karen DiMeo and Charles “Cliff” Johnson, from the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center ( Egg Harbor Township), were lauded for their support of and advocacy for the project. Speaking at the event, Johnson said that the FAA was providing the flight tracks from overflight data from other aircraft. They also brought some displays of the research they had been doing as part of an innovation forum. “We are stressing the importance of what you can do using drones for good, and operating in a safe environment,” he said.

The New Jersey Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site took care of the approvals and safety issues for the flights in Cape May, mostly through Joseph M. Sheairs Sr., executive director of the Stockton Aviation Research & Technology Park ( Egg Harbor Township), and through SARTP member company Pentagon Performance (Newark), the Press of Atlantic City reported.

Rounding out the speakers before the drone flights in Cape May was a video made for the occasion by Congressman LoBiondo, who couldn’t be there.

“Let me tell you some of the assets Cape May County brings to the table,” he said in the video. “First and foremost, the nation’s premier research, technology and testing facility — the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center — calls South Jersey home. The 3,500 talented staff at the FAA technical center are the very best in their field, and are currently working on a wide range of UAS-related science, including UAS traffic management … to ensure that people, processes and technology can safely operate in an integrated fashion.”

He added that universities such as NJIT and Rutgers are developing leading research and academic programs in UAS, and that these institutions, as well as Atlantic Cape Community College, are training the next generation of drone operators, engineers and innovators. Also, the New Jersey Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, as part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, allows access to a unique environment for test flights, said LoBiondo, who then praised Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald M. Thornton and Freeholder Will Morey for their “relentless” support for UAS development in Cape May.

The day after the demonstration, participants were involved in a “do tank,” a series of workshops in which participants developed ways to use drones for humanitarian purposes.

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