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Drone tests to begin at Cape Cod base this summer

Drone pilots, start your engines.

In just a few months, researchers could be sending unmanned aircraft into the air from Joint Base Cape Cod to test an array of experimental sensors over land and water. With drone flights strictly limited by federal regulators, the testing program at the military installation is a chance for New England companies, academics, and independent engineers to send their lab work skyward.

Granted, you’ll probably need binoculars to see them. Chris Kluckhuhn, whose company was contracted to oversee the Cape Cod program, said the vast expanse of government land was picked so Massachusetts residents won’t be disturbed by, say, a camera-outfitted quadcopter flying above their neighborhoods.


“It shouldn’t be any significant thing for the public. You’re not going to see big, huge drones flying overhead,” said Kluckhuhn, the head of Plymouth-based Avwatch and a former helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard. MassDevelopment, a quasi-public state agency whose goals include making full use of military bases, said Monday it awarded a $220,000 contract to Avwatch to manage the test program and install antennas and computer networks.

For the past several years, Avwatch has been outfitting human-piloted planes with technology from drones to make sure the non-flying components (such as data links and GPS systems) perform as expected, Kluckhuhn said. They’ve also helped monitor conditions from the air during forest fires and other natural disasters.

At least a dozen technology developers have shown interest in testing their equipment at the base, Kluckhuhn said, including researchers from the MIT Lincoln Lab and Draper Labs. To start with, he said, tests would use small, hand-launched drones, and his company would arrange for things like flight clearances and radio frequency permissions so researchers didn’t have to worry about them.

Joint Base Cape Cod was picked more than a year ago to be one of two test sites in the Northeast for testing drones, which are called “unmanned aerial systems” by regulators.


Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.