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Years of work to take St. Mary’s County to a new level in civilian industry and research are about to yield tangible results, and will be celebrated at a Aug. 5 ceremony hosted by the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D); William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system; and Vice Adm. David Dunaway, head of the Naval Air Systems Command are among dozens invited to celebrate a new unmanned aircraft systems test site planned for an area near the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport.

The aviation community here hopes the facility will be a hub for drone research and that it will attract businesses focused on developing related technology.

“We already do the work” in government, said Matt Scassero, a former Navy captain who helped lead the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division which, in part, focuses on aircraft engineering and the development and operation of unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Now, we’re doing it in the civil and commercial field,” said Scassero, who today is director of the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site.

“This really represents the next big transformation of our local economy,” said Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s). Bohanan said he has worked since 2007 to help the University of Maryland establish a more significant presence in the region.

It “was a golden opportunity,” he said, that the Federal Aviation Administration also recently sought six centers across the country to conduct research and testing to determine how drones could be integrated into manned airspace. Maryland is partnering with Virginia and New Jersey to carry out part of that research.

The combination of higher education research and making advancements in drone technology is the right combination for a region that Bohanan said needed a significant university system presence, as other parts of the state already have. And, it satisfies St. Mary’s need to lessen its dependency on defense spending.

The long-term goal is to help keep more of the $38 billion that flows through Patuxent River Naval Air Station each year in the region.

Scassero plans to move his office to the airport terminal, and the university plans to lease hangar space there, both next month. Next year, the university plans to lease a newly built hangar, office and prototyping facility. And, by 2018, Scassero said the university plans to build, in partnership with the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, a center to house its research efforts.

“What we have breathed into the airport,” Bohanan said, “is some real life and vision.”

nclark@somdnews.com