Area assets touted in drone bid papers

Questions continue over why Ohio got bypassed in test-site selection.

Ohio and Indiana touted more than $100 million in UAV research and a broad base of contractor support to the Federal Aviation Administration in a failed bid to win a coveted FAA designation as a drone test site, according to documents obtained exclusively by the Dayton Daily News.

Dayton Development Coalition leaders, who led the effort to win a test site, downplayed the loss after the FAA in December selected six bids from other states. But the documents, obtained from the state of Ohio through a public records request, suggest that congressional, business, economic and academic leaders put high importance on landing the test site.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich dubbed the development of the unmanned aerial vehicle industry as one of the top three economic priorities in the state, according to the documents.

In March 2013, the two states signed a six-year agreement to support drone testing and research in both Ohio and Indiana to “aggressively pursue” a FAA-designated test site.

The state paid an Arlington, Va., consultant, Strategic Growth Partners LLC at least $1.5 million to assemble the submission to the FAA. Indiana reimbursed Ohio $250,000, the state has said.

The newspaper obtained hundreds of pages from the proposal the two states submitted to the FAA. The documents do not shed light on why the bid was unsuccessful, but they provide a glimpse at what steps were taken to win the bid. Those steps included nearly 70 letters from government agencies, economic development groups, universities and companies touting the region and its commitment to unmanned aerial vehicle and systems development.

“We thought we did a good job defining the attributes of this region and Ohio and Indiana,” said Maurice McDonald, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president of aerospace and defense. “We still plan to make Ohio a destination of choice for UAS activity across the country.”

Huge disappointment

The FAA’s December announcement was a huge disappointment locally because many thought the region had a good shot. Sites in Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, New York and Virginia won the designation with a congressional mandate to integrate drones in civilian airspace by September 2015.

As part of the local bid, the Ohio and Indiana congressional delegations referred to the promise of “significant economic development and job creation not only in Ohio and Indiana but in the Midwest” in two letters sent to then Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

“With key research and development activities associated with a test site taking place in the region, we expect to attract the rest of the supply chain, including manufacturing and assembly,” the Ohio congressional delegation wrote. “Because of the large aerospace manufacturing sector already present in Ohio and Indiana, the selection of our proposal stands to provide high job gains in the region.”

The Indiana delegation cited the potential of a $94 billion UAS industry by 2020 and job growth projected at 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent a year through 2025. The states did not offer projections on how many jobs or investment might come to either state with a test site.

But the hopes, for some, were large. In one case, the Dubois County Airport Authority in Indiana cited the Huntingburg Regional Airport economic impact of $522 million per year — “which could double with the Test Site,” a letter said.

The two states highlighted the Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Aerial Systems Center and Test Complex in Springfield as the key point to manage operations and noted 1,000 drone sorties occurred on the affiliated ranges in 2012.

The largest of those ranges included the combined Buckeye and Brush Creek Military Operating Areas in southwest Ohio. Other sites included Springfield-Buckley Municipal Airport, Wilmington Air Park, and the National Center for Medical Readiness, otherwise known as Calamityville, in Fairborn.

In Indiana, National Guard ranges at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center near Edinburgh, the Jefferson Proving Ground in Madison, and the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center near Butlerville were part of the sales pitch to the FAA.

The joint agreement between the two states also covered Camp Perry Joint Training Center in Port Clinton, Ohio; Hulman Field at Terre Haute International Airport and Baer Field in Fort Wayne, Ind.

The redacted or blacked out portions of the documents included documentation the state said would violate trade secrets, such as range capabilities, or personal information.

Despite the loss, organizations such as Sinclair Community College and the Air Force Research Laboratory have FAA-granted Certificates of Authorization to continue testing and flying UAVs in Springfield and Wilmington.

Military airspace an obstacle?

Ohio and Indiana’s reliance on flying unmanned aerial vehicles in military airspace was likely a major obstacle to win a test site, said Michael K. Farrell, an aviation consultant in Vandalia and a former president of the Ohio chapter of the Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems International.

Rob Nichols, a Kasich spokesman, acknowledged in an email last month the FAA “mentioned some concern over what they viewed as an over-reliance on special use air space, but they said it was not a significant concern.” He wrote the FAA “did not give us any reasons” for the rejection and “had good things to say about our application in every area they discussed.”

The FAA has declined to answer questions about the test site selection process. However, FAA spokesman Les Dorr noted in an email that some of the sites where testing would be done, such as the Atterbury and Jefferson sites in Indiana, are considered restricted airspace and “can only be used for national defense purposes” under FAA rules.

After scanning a portion of the documents, Farrell said the joint proposal did not appear to stand out given the competition from other states.

“I didn’t see anything that said Ohio was different than anywhere else,” he said.

The two states’ proposal highlighted all six areas the FAA targeted: Drone safety and data gathering; certification of unmanned aerial vehicles; commands and control UAV links; control station and human operator performance; sense and avoidance technology; and minimizing the environmental impact of UAS operations.

One reason other states may have been successful was a narrower focus on the development of technology, such as sense and avoidance capabilities for unmanned aircraft, Farrell said.

Where that leaves Ohio now is “the biggest question,” Farrell added. “That’s the question nobody wants to answer right now.”

UAVs and the future

The Dayton Development Coalition’s McDonald said the plan submitted to the FAA is the same course of action the coalition and the test center will pursue going forward.

“The only thing that has changed is we are not a test site for the FAA,” he said, adding that the coalition will be engaged on a national level to bring employers to the region to “make this a robust industry.

“We still think we can do that without being an FAA designated test site.”

McDonald noted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration picked the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex as the center of a two-year, $1.5 million Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge. Nine teams registered to compete this fall, he said.

The location of the contest at Camp Atterbury was at one point in doubt because the Department of Defense had decided only military aircraft should fly there, but reversed course when the Air Force Research Laboratory role as a consultant became known, McDonald said.

In the drone test site competition, the FAA barred state teams from naming federal agencies as partners. Ohio and Indiana did name National Guard military units as team members, such as the 178th Fighter Wing at Springfield Air National Guard Base, which flies the MQ-1 Predator drone. But Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was not made a team member.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, who demanded and received an FAA briefing about the selection process, has said the FAA devalued the assets of Wright-Patt in the selection process. The Air Force Research Laboratory, headquartered at the base, has invested heavily in sense and avoidance technology of drones, for example.

This week, trade associations demanded the FAA speed up the timeline to set rules to tap into a small unmanned aerial vehicle market some say is sitting on the sidelines waiting to launch. Other countries have outpaced the United States, which risks losing a competitive advantage, they said.

Donald E. Smith, president and owner of UA Vision in Dayton, said the he FAA must lay out the rules to fly small UAVs because the industry is outpacing the need for regulation to allow legal operations. The FAA has pursued fines against some operators for flying drones commercially.

“I don’t think that losing the test site had that much impact on us,” said Smith, who was named as one of the partners in the FAA documents. “I think what is far more critical is that the FAA seems to be doing nothing (pressing) to allow access to the airspace. That’s killing us.

“It definitely has cost me business, it has cost me customers, and it has very dramatically reduced my business income,” he said.

Complex rules

Dorr, the FAA spokesman, said in an email that putting rules in place to commercially fly small UAVs “is one of the Administration’s top priorities.”

“The rulemaking is very complex and we want to ensure that we strike the right balance of requirements for small UAS to help foster growth in this emerging industry,” he wrote.

The FAA has had ongoing discussions with “a few distinct industries” to explore limited commercial flights under controlled conditions and with “low risk,” Dorr wrote.

Farmers and filmmakers are among groups who have lobbied to fly drones commercially.

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