More than three years since Ohio was snubbed in a bid for a coveted federally designated drone test site, officials have targeted a renewed push to make the region a leading hot spot to test and build future unmanned aerial technology.
Advocates want Ohio to be the test site of “Jetsons-like” personal air vehicles by 2022. They also want a stake in the development of package delivery drones and a bigger role in resolving technical obstacles to bring drones more fully into civilian air space.
But the attempt to grow the drone industry in Ohio has been hampered, some say, by critical technologies needed to integrate the unmanned machines into the skies.
“There are still some things holding us back,” said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial Manufacturing Facility, which builds custom-made drones in Springfield. “… These are wonderful tools, but we haven’t really hit our stride yet.”
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The Ohio Federal Research Network, a consortium of universities geared toward winning federal contracts with NASA Glenn Research Center near Cleveland and defense labs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is behind a $7 million push to bring more drone work to the state.
The aim is not only to test the vehicles in Ohio but to get aerospace companies, who rank among the top suppliers to Boeing and Airbus, tied to the drone industry, said Dennis Andersh, co-director and executive director of the Wright State Research Institute.
A key part of the initiative is a $5 million project the Air Force Research Laboratory and state of Ohio are collaborating on to make the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport into a drone test center for the military and industry.
Officials expect to ask the FAA within months for approval to fly drones beyond visual line of sight and to test a ground-based sense and avoid system to help drones navigate the skies, according to AFRL.
Those areas are two major technical obstacles to fully integrating drones into the skies, said Philip Finnegan, a director of corporate analysis at the Virginia-based Teal Group.
The Springfield site would expand a current test range area, growing from seven square miles today to 200 square miles, if the FAA signs off on the expected request.
In the future, planners expect to demonstrate ground-based sense and avoid technology with the Ohio National Guard in a response to a real disaster in the state, Andersh said.
The drive for a bigger drone test range with more capability would potentially give Ohio something it tried to attain but lost in a competition with other states.
The Dayton Development Coalition hired a Virginia-based consultant in a $1.5 million taxpayer-funded attempt to land one of six FAA-designated test sites in a joint Ohio-Indiana bid that failed three years ago. The federal government chose locations in Alaska, New York, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia and Texas.
Joe Sciabica, president of United Technology Corp. and a former AFRL executive director, said while Ohio should tie universities and the drone industry together on the latest project, officials should know if what they’re doing duplicates or is different than similar work elsewhere.
Ohio’s niche is finding application for the technology, Sciabica added.
“We do need more industry lead though,” he said. “Industry is where the jobs are at. Those are the ones creating the product and growing the (Gross Domestic Product). Industry in and of itself has been reluctant to step up to the plate for what reason I don’t know.”
By 2025, an industry study projected 2,700 drone industry jobs and a $2.1 billion economic impact in Ohio and 100,000 jobs and $82 billion economic impact nationally by 2025.
But to get there will mean the FAA loosening rules to allow larger drones to fly, according to Tom McMahon, a spokesman at the Arlington, Va.-based Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
“The small drones you see flying today are unlikely to provide this type of economic opportunity, but once FAA allows for larger drones those figures would be more obtainable,” he said.
In Ohio, the most popular drone commercial uses are for agriculture, real estate and infrastructure inspection, he said.
A proliferation of drones
The skies across the country are proliferated with more drones than ever before, with businesses flying them for aerial inspections and hundreds of thousands of hobbyists taking to the skies in ever larger numbers but raising privacy, security and safety concerns.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates recreational drones will more than triple in numbers, rocketing from 1.1 million last year to more than 3.5 million by 2021.
The commercial fleet could mushroom from 42,000 last year to 442,000 by 2021 FAA projections show. But depending on the regulations put in place, those numbers could go higher or lower, the federal agency said.
The FAA rolled out new rules for commercial drones that fueled the recent boom, allowing restricted daytime use requiring remote pilot operators to keep drones within sight and below 400 feet.
Meanwhile, privacy, safety and security issues continue to hover around drones.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit with about 100 other organizations against the FAA contending the federal agency had a legal obligation to impose privacy regulations on small drones, particularly over private property.
“I don’t think it’s because people are afraid of drones,” said Marc Rotenberg, EPIC president. “I think it’s because we don’t want strangers taking pictures of us.”
Drones in law enforcement
Doug Daniels, senior law enforcement training officer at the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy, acknowledged privacy concerns extend to law enforcement surveillance.
Daniels said he tells officers to obtain a search warrant if they intend to use a drone as part of an investigation. He also said officers should go door to door in neighborhoods to tell people a drone is flying overhead.
“Privacy is a big issue and that’s why I said agencies need to have transparency,” he said.
Nationwide, a growing number of law enforcement and public safety agencies have used the technology for traffic crash and crime scene investigations to search and rescue and large crowd surveillance.
Drones have spotted environmental violators and marijuana fields and fire fighters have flown drones to get a scope of dangerous fires in what’s become a wider use of the technology in recent years.
In Ohio, however, agencies have had “some reluctance” to use drones, he said.
“There’s been some reluctance and the reluctance has been coming from the wait and see of how far it goes, see who else is using it, see how that equipment progresses, what other agencies are doing training-wise, what their policy and procedures say and things like that,” Daniels said.
In Blue Ash, a Cincinnati suburb, the police department added a drone last fall. It’s flown over two homicide scenes, played a part in police training and is a less expensive way to obtain aerial shots, said Blue Ash police Lt. Steve Schueler.
“We have emphasized that we are not big brother peeping in the window,” he said. “We’re trying to use it for a public safety purpose and we have constraints on how we can use it.”
In May, a federal court struck down a rule most hobbyist drone users had to register with the FAA, which also required drone operators mark every aircraft with an identification number.
The FAA has imposed flight restrictions on how close drones fly near airports and restricted altitudes to avoid collisions with aircraft, but some pilots and others have safety concerns.
Pilots reported 1,448 sightings this year through Aug. 11, according to the FAA. But, McMahon of the AUVSI, says the sightings do not necessarily mean a “near miss” between a drone and a plane.