Miami Valley area seeks commercial drone growth

Promoters are lauding the Miami Valley as a potential hot spot for development of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, for commercial purposes. Shown above is a New Zealand-built Droidworx Airframe SkyJib-8, outfitted with a motion picture camera. (Photo from Droidworx website)

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.”

 

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