Building Tomorrow’s Aviation Together: Airport, UAS Test Site Celebrate Ties

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An airport in Southern Maryland is commemorating its history and looking ahead to aviation’s future—one in which manned and unmanned aircraft routinely share the skies.

Dedicated in 1970, St. Mary’s County Regional Airport turns 50 next year. In conjunction with the anniversary, the University of Maryland’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Siteis donating one of its aircraft for display in the main terminal building. The Test Site is located at the airport and co-ordinates its activities to ensure smooth, safe operations.

 “The UAS Test Site is part of the airport community, flying unmanned aircraft safely alongside their manned counterparts,” says Test Site project manager Jim Alexander. “The operational practices we’ve developed here can provide an example for the emerging UAS industry as it takes on a larger role in aviation.”

The donated aircraft, a Talon 240G, has featured in Test Site missions designed to show how unmanned aircraft can contribute to humanitarian and disaster relief operations—by dropping supplies, maintaining communications links, or locating people in need, among other uses. The plane was retired this year as the team acquired newer aircraft. It will now occupy pride of place in the airport terminal. 

“We plan to hang it from the terminal ceiling to display it for aviation enthusiasts or anyone visiting the terminal, in the hope that it will not only interest individuals in UAS but in aviation in general,” airport manager Allison Swint said. “The displayed donation will also show the community the strong relationship the county has with the Test Site.”

Aviation is changing, she said, and the airport’s connection with the Test Site enables it to position itself well for the future.

“Unmanned aircraft systems are revolutionizing the aviation industry by doing things that have never been done before—including the first-ever UAS delivery of human organ for transplant. The Test Site conducts important research into what UAS services can provide, both now and in the future,” she said. “The fact that they are located here benefits not only the airport, but St. Mary’s County.”

Matthew Scassero, director of the UMD UAS Test Site, says the county could become a hub for UAS-related economic and commercial activity. The Test Site is a catalyst for that process, he said.

“Research and development is needed in order for the potential of unmanned aircraft systems to be fully realized, and that’s where we come in,” Scassero said. “But that’s not all we do We also work with industries that want to pivot from manned to unmanned aircraft, as with new businesses that are standing up to serve the unmanned systems market.”

“We’re change agents,” he said. “The future of aviation is happening now. And it’s happening here, in Southern Maryland.” 

Part of the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, the UAS Test Site was launched in 2014 with the goal of accelerating the safe, responsible application of unmanned aircraft systems in public and private industries.

St. Mary’s County Regional Airport, also known for a time as Captain Walter Francis Duke Regional Airport, serves as the base for approximately 200 aircraft. Two helicopters housed at the airport transport medevacs to locations around Maryland and northern Virginia, and the airport is also home to the Civil Air Patrol’s St. Mary’s Composite Squadron, which conducts search and rescue operations and cadet leadership training. Twenty businesses are located at the airport, with a combined total of 250 employees.

Published June 25, 2019