Academic leaders: UAS work will continue

A recent move by Sinclair Community College demonstrates that, college leaders say.

The decision by the FAA to designate six regions — Ohio not among them —for testing how to safely fly drones in the national airspace was a blow, locals acknowledge.

But no one regards it as a crippling one.

“Actually, from my perspective, we’ve gotten busier,” said Andrew Shepherd, program director for Sinclair’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program.

Sinclair last week announced a partnership with Columbus firm Asymmetric Technologies. The college will work with Asymmetric to help transfer UAS technologies from government development to civilian, public markets. Technologies could end up in Sinclair classes.

Sinclair has been busy in the UAS arena. The college last summer won an FAA certificate of authorization to fly UAS aircraft at Wilmington Air Park in Clinton County. And in September, Sinclair announced partnerships with Woolpert, a Beavercreek geospatial engineering firm, and with Gainesville, Fla.-based Altavian, a producer of UAS platforms, to support the college’s work in the area.

Sinclair trustees last year committed to investing $1.4 million in its UAS programs. That commitment hasn’t diminished, and that money will be spent, said Deb Norris, Sinclair’s vice president, Workforce Development and Corporate Services.

“We’re moving as fast, if not faster,” Norris said.

Dennis Andersh, chief operating officer at the Wright State University Applied Research Corp., agrees that Dayton-based UAS development and training will not evaporate in the wake of the FAA decision.

Andersh — a former local executive with Science Applications International Corporation, now known as Leidos — called the FAA’s decision “unfortunate,” but he said it won’t derail local work already started on UAVs.

For example, WSU’s Center for Medical Readiness is testing the use of remotely piloted drones as assistance for emergency first responders, he said.

“I don’t see that changing,” Andersh said. “It’s (the FAA choice) unfortunate. But it’s not going to change our focus.”

In all, Sinclair has 6 FAA certificates of authority (also called “COAs”) for FAA flight testing and a “flawless safety record” in using UAS devices so far, Norris said.

Companies that don’t yet know about Dayton and its strengths may gravitate toward the six states the FAA chose last month, she said. But as they learn more about the FAA industry, they may be drawn to Dayton for a variety of reasons. The Air Force’s hub in research and logistics, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is still in the region, they noted.

“Part of that is (having) the trained workforce,” Shepherd said.

This month, Sinclair started offering an online class on how to apply to the FAA for COAs to fly drones. Students from industry and government, even from other states, are taking the class, Shepherd said.

“We have built some expertise in how to apply for COAs,” Norris said.

The payoff for students is employment: The college is preparing to announce that several Sinclair students recently won UAS-related jobs with the Air Force.

Sinclair will continue to look for ways to test new UAS applications and new geographic areas to test those applications, she said.

Shepherd — who has been with Sinclair since July — believes one of those key uses will be “precision agriculture.” Sensors aboard flying drones can be used to determine how to direct farm irrigation, how to apply fertilizers and pesticides and more. Most UAS usage in coming years will be for agriculture, he believes.

Industry-watchers say the UAS market is expected to reach nearly $90 billion over the next decade. Sinclair touts itself as the first community college to hold COAs at two locations for drone use.

“We had started these UAS efforts long before the FAA” decision, Norris said. “Why don’t we continue to do what we’re doing, legally?”

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