Ohio UAV center could bolster jobs, industry

Ohio is establishing a complex for unmanned aerial vehicles to bolster the state’s UAV industry and try to capture a share of the growing, multibillion-dollar worldwide appetite for the craft, state officials said Wednesday.

State officials are looking at sites in the Dayton area to house the center’s offices, which is intended to be a one-stop-shop for government, industry and universities seeking to participate in the effort to demonstrate that UAVs can be safely flown in manned airspace.

A critical piece of this effort is ongoing research to develop reliable “sense and avoid” systems that would enable a remotely piloted aircraft to automatically swerve to miss an oncoming manned plane even before the ground-based UAV pilot would become aware of the hazard.

Ohio will pay the estimated $1.5 million startup cost for the center. State officials hope it will eventually become self-supporting through fees that users would pay.

Ohio also announced it is partnering with Indiana to strengthen the two states’ efforts to win Federal Aviation Administration approval for one of six test sites to be created nationally in order to accelerate the integration of remotely piloted aircraft into airspace now reserved for manned airplanes. Ohio officials made the announcement at a Las Vegas convention of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a UAV industry trade organization.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels agreed to jointly seek approval for one of the FAA sites, under a five-year test program Congress enacted legislation to create. The FAA has told Congress that, in December, the agency intends to announce its choice of the six test-flying ranges. The sites are expected to provide an economic-development jolt to the host regions as UAV-specialty companies seek to move there to take advantage of the opportunity.

Leaders of Dayton’s UAV and sensor development community haven’t forecast how many jobs the region might realize if it becomes a nationally recognized center of UAV testing, research, training and flying.

But the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace industry analyst, has projected global spending on unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs and their sensor systems) at $90 billion during the next 10 years. Beyond the current military uses, unmanned aircraft are projected to have widespread civilian uses including agriculture, law enforcement, border patrol, disaster response and utility industry transmission line monitoring.

“The size of this opportunity is just unparalleled,” said James A. Leftwich, special adviser to Kasich for UAS initiatives. “It is the emerging aerospace opportunity.”

The region, birthplace of aviation, already is home to UAV manufacturing, research and development; advanced materials manufacturing, sensors research and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which manages and supports Air Force UAV programs and sensors research and development. In 2009, former Gov. Ted Strickland designated Dayton as Ohio’s hub of aerospace innovation, entitling the area to receive state funding support to build its expertise and job-creating potential.

“Ohio is well-positioned to compete for the industry given the strength of its aeronautics industry, with an emphasis on research and training, as well as its existing infrastructure of airspace and facilities,” Kasich’s office said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

Last year, defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) moved 215 jobs to the Dayton-Springfield area to seek UAV business in support of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Nine months later, the Dayton Development Coalition — which Leftwich formerly headed as president and chief executive officer — hired SAIC under a $1.35 million, 18-month contract to help the coalition and Ohio improve the state’s prospects for becoming a nationally recognized center of unmanned aircraft expertise. The coalition, a nonprofit, promotes economic development in the 14-county Dayton region.

Ohio would begin the UAV test-flying in the Buckeye-Brush Creek military operating area, east of Cincinnati and south of Columbus. That airspace was once restricted for use by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s 4950th Test Wing, disbanded in 1994. In recent years, Springfield’s Ohio Air National Guard base has used that airspace for practice flights of F-16 fighter aircraft.

Other areas of Ohio could be added as the demand for UAV flying time increased, Leftwich said.

Indiana now allows UAV flying at Camp Atterbury, an Indiana Air National Guard base near Columbus, Ind. That has been the closest UAV flying area for operators of unmanned aircraft in recent years. But, more recently, Sinclair Community College has received FAA approval for restricted flying of a small UAV at the Springfield Air National Guard base. The Air Force Research Laboratory has obtained similar FAA approval for UAV developmental flying at Wilmington Air Park, the former DHL air express delivery hub near Wilmington.