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Ohio selling itself as UAV test site

At a massive conference last week devoted to the unmanned aerial vehicle industry, states including Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Idaho set up sometimes lavish exhibits touting the benefits of their states.

The displays varied, but the message was the same: Pick us.

Some 25 states are vying to be among the six test sites the Federal Aviation Administration will select later this year for commercial testing of unmanned aerial vehicles. Beyond that, as the U.S. unmanned aircraft industry evolves beyond military use into commercial use, it is increasingly viewed as a potential economic boon to states seeking economic development. The aircraft, they say, can be used for everything from precision agriculture to police work.

That made last week’s conference, held at a Washington, D.C. convention center, something of a beauty contest. States submitted their applications to be FAA test sites months ago, but as they laid out their free Frisbees or recyclable grocery bags emblazoned with state logos, many hoped their exhibit would help “brand” them as UAV-friendly.

“Every good marketing effort requires repetition of the message,” said Michael O’Malley, director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, standing in front of a giant inflatable Yeti holding up a UAV. Utah has been going to the AUSVI Unmanned Systems conference since 1996 and exhibiting there since 2006.

Ohio, meanwhile, has exhibited at the convention for the past three years, expanding their presence each time. This year, they hosted a reception that featured giveaways including journals emblazoned with their logo, a ringed binder advertising Ohio’s assets and cookies shaped like the state of Ohio. Staff at the exhibit wore matching red shirts one day, matching white shirts the next. Their name tags were shaped like the state of Ohio.

On Tuesday, hours after North Dakota held a reception at the convention featuring veggie and fruit and cheese platters as well as remarks by the state’s lieutenant governor, Ohio held its own reception, with light hors d’oeuvres and wine and beer. By 5 p.m., the Ohio booth was bustling. The next day, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, toured the exhibit – another chance to draw attention to the state’s booth.

Physically, Ohio’s exhibit was one of the biggest – only Oklahoma’s took up more space – and the booth alone cost $45,000 for design and construction. That figure doesn’t count the other costs, including giveaways, literature and reception costs. The Dayton Development Coalition, Ohio’s Third Frontier Program and a coalition of Ohio companies and universities split the bill, according to Michael Gessel of the Dayton Development Coalition.

“We’ve got to have a presence here,” said Scott Koorndyk, chief operating officer of the Dayton Development Coalition, who said the booth is “about getting in front of companies and selling the benefits of Ohio.”

To bolster their bid, Ohio has partnered with Indiana. They highlighted that partnership with a massive map marking all the potential sites where UAVs could be tested, including in restricted air space in southern Indiana. The two states submitted their 6,000 page application to become an FAA test site in May, two years after a group of Ohio lawmakers pushed for language in an FAA reauthorization bill calling for the establishment of FAA test sites.

They say unmanned aerial vehicles are in their blood. Dayton businessman Charles Kettering developed the first unmanned aerial vehicle, the “Kettering Bug” in 1918.

And the AUVSI, the trade organization representing unmanned aircraft now headquartered in Washington, D.C., was first established in Dayton in 1972.

There’s an irony inherent in the states’ sales pitches: At a time when unmanned aerial vehicles are getting negative attention for infringing on privacy and for being used overseas as a weapon, these states are eager to demonstrate that they want a piece of the pie. They’ve bolstered their FAA applications by partnering with law professors who can advise about privacy concerns. Idaho passed a law requiring law enforcement to have a search warrant before using unmanned aerial vehicles to investigate criminal activities. Ohio has partnered with law professors at the University of Dayton, among others, for guidance on privacy issues.

But to them, unmanned aircraft are inevitable. Even as they wrestle with concerns about privacy infringement, they see benefits: farmers able to focus pesticide and watering on specific areas rather than blanketing vast acreage; aircraft taking care of destructive wildfires; cheaper and more efficient monitoring of utility and gas lines.

“There’s just so much opportunity,” said Richard Honneywell, the director of Ohio’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Center and Test Complex, which is overseeing development of unmanned aircraft in Ohio.

At Oklahoma’s booth, a centrally located behemoth featuring a giant unmanned aerial vehicle atop it, economic development officials handed out Frisbees and eyeglass cloths emblazoned with pictures of the state. It was their third booth in three years, and in one corner, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Technology Stephen McKeever took meetings. Three years ago, he wandered the convention hall, taking it all in. This year, he didn’t have time to leave the booth.

His state is vying too to be one of the six. And while they’re excited, McKeever can’t help but worry that the process is moving too slowly.

“Other nations around the world are moving ahead,” McKeever said. “Other nations are using unmanned aerial systems in a way we are only hoping to use them.”

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