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CALIFORNIA, Md (WUSA9) -- Maryland is looking to cash in on the next big thing.

The University of Maryland cut the ribbon today of one of the first sites in the country where private companies will be able to test unmanned commercial aircraft or drones.

California has Silicon Valley, New York has Silicon Alley, Maryland is hoping to have the Drone Shore.

Unmanned helicopters are already lifting heavy cargo and supplying troops in Afghanistan...

But the FAA and the Justice Department are taking awhile to weigh the risks and privacy issues of flying commercial drones in the US.

When the FAA promulgates regs for light commercial drones next year, Maryland wants to be ready. So the University of Maryland just opened the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site at St Mary's Airport here in the town of California in Southern Maryland.

"The potential is unbelievable," says William "Britt" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "We could become in effect the Silicon Valley for autonomous vehicles."

Many of them may look like toys, but from news gathering to agriculture to delivering packages, advocates say drones could be a $90 billion industry in a decade.

One of the first tenants at the test site is Aurora Flight Sciences and its Centaur aircraft, which can be flown by a human pilot -- or by a robot. "The right hand seat pulls out," says CEO John Langford, and the robot sits there much like R2D2.

Langford says drones have the potential to change our lives as much as cell phones and GPS. "This could be flying on the other side of the world, and you could be controlling it from your office," he says of his Centaur.

And like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, it all has to start someplace.

Dozens of European countries already allow commercial drone flights...and there are thousands of certified Japanese drone operators. But Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md) says with our huge advantage in military technology, there's little chance we'll lose the commercial race.

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