Miami Valley area seeks commercial drone growth
- Published: September 19, 2013
This is the second in a two-part series of articles on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also called drones) in the Miami Valley.
In mid-August the largest Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS, conference in the world took place in Washington, D.C., attracting more than 8,000 visitors from 45 countries. Among the more than 600 information booths on UAS research, development and manufacturing, the biggest booth hailed from Ohio — and specifically, from the Miami Valley — with promoters lauding the area as a potential hot spot for UAS development.
Business was booming at the Ohio booth, according to Dick Honeywell, recently appointed by Governor Kasich as the director of the new Ohio/Indiana UAS Test Center and Complex in Springfield. Honeywell spoke to the News as he tended the booth where, he said, he was too busy fielding questions about Ohio as a potential UAS center to visit other presenters.
“I think everyone understands the message of the strength of Ohio in the aeronautical industry,” Honeywell said.
Honeywell was joined at the booth by representatives of the Wright State Research Institute, or WSRI, which has been working with the Dayton Development Coalition, or DDC, to make the Miami Valley a focal point for UAS research and development.
Ohio, partnering with Indiana, is considered one of the strongest competitors in an effort to become one of six sites nationwide approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, for UAS testing and development. More than 30 states and agencies are vying in the competition, which will identify FAA-certified sites for testing and development regarding how to integrate UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) into commercial airspace. Teh FAA has mandated that UAVs be ready to enter commercial air space by 2015. Other strong competitors for the test site competition are Texas, North Dakota, Florida and Oklahoma, Honeywell said, and the FAA is expected to announce the winners at the end of this year.
Being chosen as one of the sites would be a huge boost for attracting potential new UAV businesses to the Miami Valley, according to Maurice McDonald of the DDC, which has identified the industry as one of the DDC’s key targets for economic growth in the area.The Association of Unmanned Aircraft Systems International, a private nonprofit trade group that sponsored the Washington, D.C. conference, estimates that the industry could bring about 2,100 mainly professional jobs to the area.
And while local UAS advocates are doing all they can to win the FAA approval, they plan to go ahead with their efforts regardless of whether or not Ohio is chosen as a test site.
The area is a no-brainer for the UAS industry, according to DDC vice-president Joe Zeis, because there’s “a tremendous confluence of capabilities” related to the industry. The research lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Lab is a leader in the “sense and avoid” technology that is a critical piece of integrating the unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace, he said, and there is also a well-developed sensor industry in the area, starting with the University of Dayton’s Institute for Advancement.
In his several decades in the Air Force before coming to work at the DDC, Zeis said he had seen different areas of the country that have different aspects of these technologies.
“You see pockets of places with some expertise,” he said. “But you see these capabilities all together only here.”
New uses for drones
While most people think of drones as military weapons that hunt down terrorists, Miami Valley advocates see the UAV’s greatest potential as a new tool for business, to be used in a multitude of ways.
“The largest potential for growth is on the commercial side,” McDonald said in a recent interview.
Future commercial uses are many, as the aircrafts become smaller and more flexible, according to a June 6 article in the National Geographic. While it may be premature to use UAVs for pizza delivery (although it has been done) large farmers are eager to use them to grow crops more efficiently. For instance, the UAVs can monitor fields for soil conditions and plant health, identifying areas that need more water, fertilizer or pesticides. They could also monitor forest fires and help to survey large tracts of land, promoters say.
First responders are eager to use the UAVs to locate missing persons or help firefighters more efficiently and safely enter burning homes, according to McDonald. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, recently teamed up with NASA in a $30 million experiment to find ways to use the UAVs to keep an eye on storms as they evolve, according to the National Geographic article. UAVs are also projected as useful in 3-D mapping, and for such purposes as monitoring the size of large crowds.
“Really, the potential uses of UAVs are limited only by our imaginations,” said McDonald.
Controversy as well
But the idea of police departments harnessing drones for surveillance makes some people nervous, especially groups concerned with protecting civil liberties.
“We understand there are some potential benefits to this type of technology, but we also recognize that there are threats to civil liberties,” said Melissa Bilancini, publicity coordinator of the Ohio ACLU in a recent interview. “We believe these vehicles will only get smaller and cheaper, and want to make sure policy is in place to protect the rights of Ohioans.”
That policy may be put in place this year in the Ohio Legislature, which could join 42 other states that have banned the use of drones for blanket police surveillance. In June Representative Rex Damschroder introduced HB 207, which would forbid law enforcement agencies from using drones for surveillance without a search warrant. The bill, which is co-sponsored by seven other Republicans, is expected to move forward this fall.
The ACLU supports the bill and does not mind being in league with legislators with whom the group often disagrees.
“We’re very pleased that this bill has been introduced. It’s a great first step toward protecting civil liberties,” Bilancini said. However, the group hopes the bill is eventually broadened to include more specifics on data collection, including how long incidental data collected may be kept by police departments.
In Ohio, five entities, including one police department, have been approved by the FAA to use UAVs for civilian purposes. The entities are three universities, including Sinclair Community College, which offers classes on UAVs; the Ohio Department of Transportation, which uses a UAV for traffic control; and the Medina County Sheriff’s Department.
The Medina Sheriff came by its UAV in an unusual way, after working with a local manufacturer of the aircraft, which then offered the aircraft to the sheriff for free, according to Medina Sheriff Tom Miller in a recent interview. The office currently has approval to use the aircraft for training purposes, and will soon apply for approval to use it for operations.
However, Sheriff Miller said he is respectful of citizens’ concerns regarding the use of UAVs by law enforcement.
“They should have concerns. That’s legitimate,” he said, stating that the Medina County department “has no intention of using this for surveillance.”
“We have no interest in being the first agency to have case law deciding against how we’re using something,” Sheriff Miller said.
Rather, he said, the department’s interest would be in using the UAV for search and rescue.
“Parts of the county are heavily wooded,” he said. “A couple of times a year we lose a child.”
Likewise, the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police is taking a cautious approach to the potential use of UAVs, according to the group’s president, Chief Ken Hinkle in a recent interview. The group began discussing the new technology in the past year, Hinkle said, and sent out surveys to police chiefs to determine their interest in UAV use.
In survey responses so far, “there was a resounding no” to the idea of using the UAVs for surveillance, he said.
“Quite honestly, in terms of spying, I think we do enough of that already,” Chief Hinkle said.
Rather, the group’s members saw potential for using the UAVs for search and rescue, and perhaps in specific situations to execute search warrants.
But the group will not move ahead without understanding the consequences, Chief Hinkle said, and that understanding should come from dialogue.
“We have a long way to go and feel we have to reach out to populations that feel intimidated by this,” he said, stating that some of that dialogue should be with groups like the ACLU. “We think we all need to get into the room together and have a thoughtful discussion.”
Ultimately, it may turn out that the UAVs aren’t appropriate for police use, Hinkle said.
“We may find it’s a no-go, or the public wants restrictions in Ohio,” he said. “Also, what are the consequences if it’s abused by police? Everyone has to be on board, and we need some serious conversations.”
While police departments may feel cautious, area economic development advocates are moving full speed ahead on civilian UAV research and development. In Greene County, the Greene County Community Improvement Corporation and the City of Xenia hosted a forum in June advertising a 163-acre county-owned site on Union Road, which is now farmland, as a potential home for UAV development and manufacture. About 50 people attended.
“We feel that Greene County, with its proximity to the proposed test site, has lots of opportunity to capture UAV business,” according to David Kell, the county’s economic development director, in a recent interview.
So far, there have been no bites on the proposed site, which sells for $25,000 per acre. But several UAV companies have called to express interest in Greene County, Kell said.
With its proximity to Wright Patterson Air Force Base and other UAV related businesses, the county could be a natural fit for the new technology, according to Kell.
“We have a lot of brain power in Greene County,” he said.
In Springfield, the UAV industry is already making an impact, starting with the millions annually brought in by a variety of entities, including the Ohio Air National Guard, located at the Springfield-Beckley Airport, and the UAV manufacturer SelectTech, also located at the airport. And on Route 40, Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC, has an office devoted to UAV research, according to Springfield Economic Development Director Tom Franzen in a recent interview.
Most significantly for the city, Governor John Kasich in June picked a Springfield location for the Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Systems Center and Test Complex. The new center is located in a building owned by Advanced Virtual Engine Test Cell, or Avetec, in the Nextedge Research and Industrial Park just east of Springfield on US 40.
The center will provide a single focal point for area UAV development, according to Rob Nichols, the governor’s spokesman in a recent interview. According to a June 12, 2013 article in the Dayton Daily News, the state has signed a two-year lease for $70,000 for the center.
“It’s very good news that the state chose to place the center here,” Franzen said. “We’ll do our best to support it.”
The location’s draw was the visualization system already in place at Avetec, which for several years has served the defense industry as a place to virtually test-drive jet engines, according to Franzen. The same technology will now be available to those working on ways to integrate UAVs into commercial airspace. According to Nichols of the governor’s office, UAV companies will be able to rent the building’s auditorium for a day to test their UAVs.
The hope is that having the center and its technical capabilities will strengthen the Miami Valley’s bid to be chosen as an FAA test site, according to Franzen, who also expects that the Springfield center will draw new UAV-related business to the area.
Companies seeking to meet the FAA’s mandate that UAVs be integrated into commercial airspace by 2015 have their work cut out for them, according to the DDC’s McDonald.
“There’s a litany of challenges,” he said.
Along with the challenge of operating the aircraft remotely, there’s a host of unresolved problems involving UAVs taking off and landing in commercial airspace.
“Picture a normal airport,” he said. “There’s a lot of ground activity as well as activity in the air. All of that has to be considered.”
If the DDC and other local UAV promoters have their way, the Ohio Valley will soon be picked as one of six FAA-approved test centers in the country for figuring out solutions to those technical challenges.
And to McDonald, the excitement associated with the UAV industry goes beyond just bringing new jobs to the area. Rather, it’s about witnessing the birth of a new and significant technology.
“Think of the main technical changes in history,” he said. “The UAV is the next phase in aerospace. It’s important that we take part in it.”