WEST BERLIN, N.J. — Qari Nazar Gul was an elusive target. The top-level Taliban commander rarely left Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan. He dispatched couriers and ordered attacks from afar.
Gul knew there was an eye in the sky and did not want to take a chance. In 2010, the eye belonged to Capt. Steve Iaquinto Jr., a targeting officer in charge of four aerial drones that searched for Taliban fighters in four provinces north of Kabul.
The New Jersey Army National Guard officer collected intelligence on enemy activities, then planned combat ground operations that resulted in a half-dozen kills and more than 30 arrests, including that of Gul's nephew.
Three years later, the wily Taliban commander is still being sought, and Iaquinto is still working with drones — or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) — this time in the civilian world with a far different mission that could give the economy a shot in the arm.
"I'm seeing through what I started," said Iaquinto, 44, of Winslow Township, who was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. New UAS uses will take the technology "to the next level."
His company, Sunhillo Corp., in West Berlin, has worked with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and local schools including Rutgers University and Richard Stockton College, to safely integrate UASes into the national airspace for peaceful uses.
The unmanned aircraft can inexpensively stay aloft for hours, making them a possible future tool to perform search-and-rescue missions and topographical mapping, analyze flood or storm damage, and monitor crops, livestock, forest fires, and climate change. Amazon has even considered using them to deliver packages. The safety features and regulations governing UAS uses still have to be worked out.
"This means jobs," said Iaquinto, Sunhillo's director of operations and program management. "We want to be part of that.
"You need qualified operators that we call pilots," he said. "You need mechanics, facility managers, and aviation facilities."
Many of the best, Iaquinto said, are already in New Jersey. The New Jersey National Guard and Reserve "has qualified people right now," he said. "Why not leverage this huge pool of experience?"
The Federal Aviation Administration last month approved a joint application by New Jersey and Virginia to be among six national UAS test sites. Others will be in New York, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, and a joint region encompassing Alaska, Hawaii, and Oregon.
Researchers at those sites — the first will open in less than six months — will develop "sense-and-avoid" systems to prevent collisions and lost-link procedures that will help the FAA write regulations for future commercial and civil uses of the unmanned craft.
The local beginnings of the new unmanned aircraft program were planted in the summer 2009, when Iaquinto, then the National Guard's deputy director of intelligence, was assigned to conduct a "proof of concept" mission to demonstrate UAS capabilities.
Their test was performed over the Warren Grove Range in Ocean County, north of the Atlantic City Airport and William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center. For six months, a team of military UAS operators who had served in Iraq flew dozens of missions from a small airstrip.
The remote area in Little Egg Harbor, Stafford, and Barnegat Townships is now routinely used by the New Jersey National Guard's UAS platoon and will be used in the new civilian program along with unused airspace over the Atlantic as the new UAS program gets underway.
The 2009 mission "led to us opening discussions with the FAA about the potential to fly outside the restricted area of the Warren Grove Range and into national airspace," Iaquinto said. "The FAA was just beginning to develop their UAS program."
The drones do not carry munitions and will have safety features such as a parachute that will deploy if power is lost, said Iaquinto, who left the Guard for Sunhillo in 2012.
"The UAS can't leave the restricted airspace or point surveillance equipment outside of that zone," he said about the testing period at Warren Grove, seeking to quell public concerns about spying and privacy. "I believe it is important to separate the platform from the payload.
"People hear 'drones' in American airspace and immediately think intelligence collection on U.S. citizens from government," he said. "As a U.S. citizen, civilian, and former military intelligence officer, I strongly disagree with anyone willing to compromise our civil liberties as Americans."
UASes and spying concerns were the topic last year of U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. "The increased use of drones to conduct surveillance in the United States must be accompanied by increased privacy protections," said Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The current state of the law is insufficient to address the drone surveillance threat."
Five years after the Warren Grove test, the FAA sought bids for the six UAS test sites, one of which went to the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), which includes Virginia Tech and Iaquinto's firm.
Virginia Tech is already flying UASes but must get a certification of authorization each time to fly in a specific location during a specific time, said Jon Greene, MAAP's acting executive director and associate director of the school's Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.
Sunhillo will provide trained personnel, equipment, and research and development. "There is much work to be done," Iaquinto said. "But I can see so many exciting opportunities for our local development surrounding the UAS program and its countless commercial applications."