“An organization called Fly Ohio commissioned a study that indicated the state of Ohio can expect more than $13 billion in economic activity over the next 25 years by taking targeted steps to support the growth of an advanced autonomous aircraft (AAM) sector.”
The study also projects the possibility of 15,000 new jobs, $2.5 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues, and 1.6% GDP growth through 2045 overall for Ohio.
The airport’s role
Franzen recalls that events in 2005 were the impetus for redefining the highly valuable role the local airport could play in the future. The Base Realignment Closure (BRAC) process to reduce duplication and save federal money resulted in the F 16 mission that had been based at the Beckley Airport being moved to another location.
The new Beckley mission that replaced it involved the very early exploration of drone flight.
“Early on, the big push by the military for autonomous drones was to remove risk by removing the human element from a dangerous situation.”
Franzen says when local officials recognized that the U.S. Air Force was going on all-in on autonomous flight, they determined it was a clear signal, and posed the big question and challenge of how the local airport might find a fit.
“If the future of the Air Force is going to be based on this technology, what can we do to remain relevant?” Franzen said. “We joined with the Dayton region to see what we could do to get a foothold in that industry. That’s when we really looked at our airport to help support the research, development and testing that the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) was doing.”
“The State of Ohio, Dayton Development Commission and all of the regional parties completed an aerospace study in 2014 to identify areas around Wright Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) that could support the testing of this technology. The study included an assessment of public perception and fleshed out some of the concerns for people in southwest Ohio.
“It served as the basis and helped form the strategy that identified Springfield Beckley Airport as prime air space that could be used for this. The rural setting of the airport and proximity to WPAFB were obviously key factors,” he said.
The collaboration of federal, state and local officials was critical to next steps in the development of the airport as a center for advancement.
“A $5 million investment from the AFRL and state of Ohio to develop a radar technology that allows drones to be flown safely in what we call beyond visual line of sight. Right now unmanned drone flight requires visual line of sight, which is great for safety but not a great business case. In order to really monetize and commercialize this technology, we have to figure out how to fly these things safely without keeping our eyes on it. This technology in development gives us an area around Springfield to test that. We are one of very few areas where you can do that type of testing.
“That’s really an attractive piece to companies. That air space is another key differentiator for us. That would not have happened without the AFRL and state of Ohio,” Franzen said.
That technology has since been branded as Sky Vision and is basically an air control system for unmanned flight.
NAAMCE promises to be another major step in the progression of technological advances. The Center will provide state-of-the-art collaboration space for WPAFB, AFRL, NASA, the Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), colleges and universities, research institutions and private industry. With 30,000 square feet of office space and 25,000 square feet of hanger space, the Center represents a $9.35 million investment in the future of electronic and autonomous flight. Funding for the project includes a $6 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, $2.9 million grant from JobsOhio and $450,000 commitment from the city of Springfield.
Meanwhile, the research and development that was a driver behind the center is continuing.
Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles
When the center opens, a major feature on display, suspended in the lobby will be one of the earliest eVTOLs developed by the California based company, Kitty Hawk Corporation, who used the airspace around the local airport to test the technology in November of 2021.
“In fact,” Franzen said, “they were the first eVTOL in the United States to fly beyond visual line of sight. It was a first for us and a first for aviation history in the country.”
The company donated one of their aircraft for display at the new location just before ceasing company operations.
Franzen predicts the electrification of flight and eVTOLs will have transformational effect in coming years. The benefits of the new technology go far beyond eliminating the environmental issues and noise associated with jet engines.
“It’s really going to impact the way we get around, especially in really congested cities like New York and Los Angeles. The ability to jump into an eVTOL that might be sitting out front, on the side or top of a building to travel will have a tremendous impact on how we construct our buildings and downtowns. That’s long term, but those are things the advance mobility industry and manufacturers are already urging communities to consider in planning now for what our cities will look like.”
And yes, he admits, it sounds like The Jetsons.
Tapping into the efforts
In addition, the rapid advancement and growth of the technology is giving birth to multiple related industries, many of them interested in connecting with and tapping into the airport’s research and testing capabilities.
“The eco-system required to fly eVTOLs safely involves sensors and features unique to it, so we are seeing broad interest from those working on elements related to these intelligent systems. They want to work side-by-side with original equipment manufacturers who are building eVTOL systems,” he said. “Those who will maintain these aircraft want to start understanding the characteristics of the aircraft, because we’re not talking about hydraulics anymore or engines using jet fuel. It’s a completely different vehicle. When we talk about this it’s not just jobs in manufacturing, but all of these sub-components that are also important.”
Franzen credits the coalition of economic advocacy groups and organizations who have come together to advance economic opportunity at the airport.
“The city has been working on this along with the governor’s office, JobsOhio, the Ohio Department of Development, FlyOhio, the Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center, the Dayton Development Coalition, the Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Department of Clark County have all been working on this concept for quite a while,” Franzen said.
From an economic development standpoint, the NAAMCE is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to burgeoning economic opportunity for the area, he said. Proximity to the new semiconductor manufacturer Intel Corporation facility in Licking County and Honda electric battery plant in Fayette County also mean Springfield is going to be very well situated.
“We have companies in town, including Silfex, who are in the semi-conductor industry and will likely see growth opportunity related to Intel’s announcement. We already have a strong network of Honda suppliers in our community so we can expect to continue attract that kind of investment,” Franzen said.
“We’ve talked about electric ground vehicles for so long. Now that there are major automotive companies starting mass production, we’re still a little behind on building out the infrastructure. When I mentioned future planning for our cities, the ground side is really showing the way for what we need to consider on the air side. It’s really interesting seeing it come together.”