Clark County looks to lead UAV industry

Plans for hangar, Clark State courses still on, despite loss of drone test site bid.

Local businesses and institutions will push ahead with their attempts to make Clark County a leader in the emerging commercial drone industry, despite losing out on a bid to be one of six national test sites.

That includes launching the state’s first precision agriculture program at Clark State Community College and building $500,000 hangars at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport to house unmanned aerial vehicles.

Other assets, like the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex on U.S. 40, put Clark County in a good position to attract businesses in manufacturing and research, even without the Federal Aviation Administration test site designation, said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial.

The unmanned aircraft industry could generate as much as $339 million for Ohio’s economy — and $13.6 billion nationwide — in the first three years after drones are integrated into U.S. airspace, experts have said, and precision agriculture is expected to play a significant role.

Just last week, the FAA approved the first commercial use of a drone in the U.S. and at the end of last month, the UAS center in Springfield participated in its first series of test flights.

The Miami Valley already has a strong base in industries like manufacturing, aerospace and data analytics, said Horton Hobbs vice president of economic development at the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

That makes the commercial drone market a natural fit for the region and could lead to high-paying jobs in other industries like manufacturing and research as well, he said.

“When you grow jobs in that industry area, the ripple it has on the rest of the economic base is important,” Hobbs said.

Test site selection

At the end of last year, the FAA rejected the Springfield-Dayton region’s bid to be one of six national test sites that would be used to develop rules for how unmanned aircraft can be used in the U.S. It instead chose sites in Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, New York and Virginia.

The designation could have provided clout to the region and encouraged high-tech firms to take a closer look at the Miami Valley, local officials have previously said. But months after the decision, it’s not clear what impact the designation has had on the states selected by the FAA, Hobbs said.

“The verdict’s still out there,” he said. “Any time you’re the test site, there’s a lot of scrutiny put on what you do and how you do it. That can sometimes actually stifle your progress.”

In the meantime, he said local officials are working to build contacts within the industry, and continue to develop the region’s UAV infrastructure.

“It’s just like anything else,” Hobbs said. “It takes time to cultivate those contacts. I think it would be fair to say at this point, the community is still in that cultivation stage.”

The UAS Center in Springfield is expected to provide support for universities and government agencies as they conduct research, as well as promote economic development and commercialization of the technology. Last month, the test center worked with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratories to conduct the first test flights over Camp Atterbury in Indiana.

The research lab, test center and NASA will conduct additional testing throughout the summer, and in September the agencies will conduct the UAS Air Operations Challenge. The event will include eight competitors who will demonstrate sense-and-avoid technology, one of the key technologies identified by the FAA as necessary to integrate UAVs into U.S. airspace.

Officials at the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center didn’t return calls seeking additional comment regarding other projects taking place at the center.

Precision agriculture to ‘break open’

One of the projects moving forward locally is Clark State’s plan to offer a two-year degree in precision agriculture. The program recently received approval by the Ohio Board of Regents and is enrolling students now.

Precision agriculture includes flying UAVs over farm fields with sensors to detect disease in crops, evaluate nutrients in the soil and determine if plants are receiving adequate water. Drones could increase farmers’ yields at a lower cost, Beafore said, without the fuel use and expense of a larger plane.

Last week the college purchased a small UAV manufactured at SelectTech. The program, which will begin classes this fall, is the first of its kind in Ohio and one of only about a dozen nationwide.

SelectTech conducts research and builds UAVs for industrial and agricultural clients.

“Precision agriculture is going to break open here pretty quickly,” Beafore said.

Students in the program won’t fly drones, but will learn to analyze real data collected from Ohio farms, said Jane Cape, dean of business and applied technologies at Clark State.

SelectTech and Clark State are also working together to acquire a certificate of authorization, which grants public entities like cities and universities permission to fly unmanned aircraft under specific conditions. Sinclair Community College already has an authorization to fly drones at the Springfield airport.

Many residents mistakenly think of military aircraft when they think of unmanned aerial vehicles, Beafore said. Instead, the drones used in agriculture and many other commercial uses typically are small devices that fly at lower altitudes.

“We’re talking about a model aircraft with a sensor attached,” he said.

Airport a ‘viable opportunity’

The city of Springfield plans to start construction soon on UAV hangars at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. The state allocated $500,000 in the capital budget for the project.

The city initially requested $2.5 million to build a 20,000-square-foot hangar and a handful of box and T-hangars. Now the city will construct only the smaller hangars because it didn’t receive the full amount it sought, said Tom Franzen, assistant city manager and director of economic development.

That project could be completed by the end of this year or early next year, Franzen said.

Springfield also is finalizing a plan to collaborate with the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center on local drone projects.

Aurea Rivera, owner of Imagineering Results Analysis Corp., said she is in preliminary talks with the city to establish a data center at the municipal airport. The center would evaluate information retrieved from UAVs during testing.

Rivera worked with Clark State as a consultant to start the precision agriculture program, although that contract has since ended. The data center would include office space where area businesses could review data collected from UAVs.

“We want to maintain Springfield-Beckley as a viable opportunity for consideration here as we move forward,” Franzen said. “It’s being used in that respect now but we’d like to enhance the amenities that are out there through hangars and other elements to make it easier to use.”

Attracting companies to the region

The UAV industry is anticipated to create about 104,000 jobs in the U.S. by 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. That’s one of the big reasons why local leaders want to lure the industry to Southwest Ohio.

The city of Springfield, along with the Dayton Development Coalition and other area business leaders, also recently participated in the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International conference in Orlando, Fla. The groups were part of an Ohio exhibit to encourage manufacturers and other industry officials to take a closer look at the state for future UAV projects, said Maurice McDonald, executive vice president for aerospace and defense for the Dayton Development Coalition.

“We wanted to showcase the strength of Ohio to hopefully, at some point, attract companies to this region,” McDonald said.

The state will also host an Ohio UAS conference later this year and plans to show off the region’s resources to industry leaders who attend.

Demand nationwide from the business community to test and use drones for commercial purposes is building rapidly. Commercial use of the aircraft is currently prohibited without FAA approval.

But the administration is taking small steps to allow commercial UAV projects in limited, low-risk civilian operations. Earlier this week, the organization granted approval for BP and AeroVironment to use a drone to collect and analyze information from BP’s Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, said Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA.

It was the first approved commercial use of a UAV in the U.S., approved through a waiver. The FAA plans to release rules later this year to permit use of small UAVs to operate commercially, likely smaller than 55 pounds.

Until the rules are finalized, the administration will consider allowing drones on a case-by-case basis in other industries as well, including agriculture, movie making, power-line inspections, and flare stack monitoring in the oil and gas industries. UAVs that can prove they can safely operate in a controlled, low-risk environment can seek authorization, Dorr said.

“We want to get the small UAS proposed rule out later this year and we want to see if we can … allow some limited commercial use of unmanned aircraft in controlled and low-risk situations,” Dorr said.

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