It’s not science fiction: One day drones will taxi you from skyscraper to skyscraper. And research in the Dayton-Springfield region will help make it happen.
A network of Ohio universities is readying to test the concept at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, another sign that this region remains in the forefront of drone development, pushing the envelope and helping to perfect new ways of using drones.
Sinclair Community College flies drones to study algae blooms on Lake Erie. A three-year, $5.9 million study of Ohio traffic on a stretch of highway between Dublin and East Liberty — part of the state’s “smart mobility” research— is based in Springfield.
And soon, at the Springfield-Beckley Airport, the Ohio Federal Research Network — of which Wright State University is a part — will explore how to use drones as personal air taxis.
This is just the start, industry advocates say.
“We are absolutely just scratching the surface,” said Maurice “Mo” McDonald, the Dayton Development Coalition’s executive vice president for aerospace and defense. “We are truly only limited by our imagination as far as how you can use UAVs.”
“The technology continues to go down in cost, and the capability of the technology keeps increasing,” said Jeffrey Miller, chief operating officer of Sinclair Community College’s Unmanned Aerial Systems department. “Every day, there’s a new application that somebody comes up with.”
The purposes for which drones are sent aloft have multiplied in recent years. Billionaire Richard Branson uses drones to help tennis players perfect their overhead swing. Facebook in 2016 flew a drone above Arizona to test providing broadband access to remote desert locations. Recently, rescuers in England used a drone to find a 75-year-old man after he became separated from his family on an evening walk and got lost in marshes near Brancaster, England.
And passenger drones? They’re here. At least, they’re flying in the nation of Dubai, where “air taxis” made by German company Volocopter have ferried passengers between skyscrapers or to the ground.
Personal air taxis
The Ohio Federal Research Network of universities will explore use of passenger drones in Springfield, said Dennis Andersh, chief executive of the Wright State Applied Research Corp.
The network is a consortium of Ohio universities, including Wright State, the University of Dayton Research Institute, Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve and others. About three months ago, the network put out a “request for proposal,” searching for research partners to explore how to test and perfect personal air vehicles and logistics-delivery vehicles.
That award will be made this month, Andersh said.
Researchers will fly a piloted personal air vehicle at the Springfield airport. Said Andersh: “We’re not ready to be flying personal air vehicles (unpiloted) tower-to-tower. We have a ways to go with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).”
But the underlying technology will be demonstrated and tested, and that demonstration will be local, he emphasized.
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That’s a big deal, as Andersh and his colleagues see it. This kind of testing is happening nowhere else in the United States at the moment, although Uber Air wants to test the concept in Australia in 2020. And other companies are starting to explore the idea.
“To the extent that we’re trying to do this, it’s not (being done anywhere else),” Andersh said. “And it’s not that far away.”
Andersh said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a piloted personal air vehicle operating somewhere in the U.S. in the next 24 months. It could be about five to 10 years before unpiloted personal air taxi use is fully operating.
And Dayton-area research will contribute to that, he believes.
“It’s going to help the universities and the industry be prepared for this change that’s coming,” Andersh said.
This is an evolving industry, and it needs support, he said.
“Ohio is the No. 1 supplier to Boeing and Airbus,” he said. “We want to make sure the businesses and universities are properly skilled and have the right tools to support that industry in the future.”
The possibilities go way beyond package delivery.
Going where humans can’t
Drones excel at doing jobs that are too difficult, dangerous, expensive or remote for conventional aircraft or ground vehicles, McDonald said. The state of Ohio flies drones to inspect bridges, for example, sending the small agile vehicles to places where helicopters or humans have trouble reaching, such as areas immediately under bridges and overpasses.
“Using UAVs to replace a human being in the loop as far as something dangerous — or anything that can cause harm especially — is a great use,” McDonald said.
Small drones can execute pre-flight inspections of aircraft. The Air Force uses drones to perform quick, close inspections of runways, looking for foreign objects, craters, anything that can interfere with airplanes, McDonald said.
Aaron Lawrence, team leader of unmanned systems at Beavercreek-based architecture and engineering firm Woolpert, said his company has relied on aerial photography nearly from its beginning in the early 20th century.
Drone use has increased that capability. One of the big new uses for drones is monitoring progress at construction sites, Lawrence said.
“In the past, people would fuel up a helicopter, go take off, maybe take a few pictures of it,” he said. “We’re able to actually pull it (the drone) out of the back of a truck.”
Being able to see live data at key construction milestones saves time, trouble and money.
“Instead of flying once a week, we fly during construction benchmarks,” Lawrence said. “If somebody builds a concrete pad, we’ll go take pictures of it so you can measure it, make sure everything is up to code before the building goes up.”
BLOS and beyond
Meanwhile, beyond-line-of-(visual)-sight flights of drones — also called “BLOS” testing — beckons at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.
The hope today is that the FAA will give the Air Force Research Lab — based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, some 20 minutes from the Springfield Airport — the final permission to initiate BLOS flying by year’s end.
BLOS testing is huge, extending the reach and versatility of UAVs, allowing researchers and pilots to send their drones higher and farther than the human eye can follow.
Such flying makes possible long-distance inspections of power grids and infrastructure, for example, said Andrew Shepherd, executive director and chief scientist of Sinclair’s Unmanned Aerial Systems department.
“Some things don’t pan out, and they don’t work or they don’t work yet,” Shepherd said. “But I’m continually impressed by people’s ingenuity.”
“This is the next step in the evolution of being able to fly UAVs,” McDonald said. “We’re going to be the operation that does this first in the United States, here in the Dayton region.”
“We will be absolutely unique,” he added.
Shepherd said Sinclair’s drone team helps the state inspect dams and culverts. But such inspections do more than allow periodic checks of infrastructure — they advance drone technology and the understanding of that technology.
“It’s not just going out and inspecting levies and dams,” Shepherd said. “The state will come to us and say, ‘We’re interested in how you can use commercial, off-the-shelf current-state (UAV) technology.’”
Many of these stakeholders have tried flying aircraft, but they’re not certain how drones and drone sensors can sharpen their focus, Shepherd said. Because it’s not just about the drone — it’s also about the sensor package and camera on board the drone.
“That can help advance the industry’s application,” Shepherd said.