Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial in Springfield, demonstrates an unmanned UAV.

Lawmakers push for greater role for Springfield in drone research

Springfield could get a second chance to serve as a drone test site after Ohio’s U.S. senators introduced legislation last week designed to boost the region’s role in the industry.

Three years ago the Springfield and Dayton region sought to be one of six sites to conduct federal research on unmanned aircraft. Instead the Federal Aviation Administration selected sites in Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, New York and Virginia.

But that didn’t prevent local companies and other organizations from moving ahead with research of their own, according to local leaders.

The industry could have an economic impact of more than $82 billion in the U.S. between 2015 and 2025, according to a projection by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman introduced an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which is being debated in the U.S. Senate. If it moves forward, the amendment would require more coordination between the FAA and U.S. Department of Defense on research into how drones and traditional aircraft can safely share airspace.

A second amendment would ensure Ohio can participate in any future FAA-funded research into unmanned aircraft. The amendment would expand the number of test sites, and could include the Springfield and Dayton region. The existing sites have been tasked with researching a variety of missions to develop privacy and safety rules to integrate drones into U.S. airspace.

Springfield’s role in the industry has grown steadily despite losing out on the designation the first time around, said Mike McDorman, president of the Chamber of Greater Springfield.

“We’re set up with the assets at (Wright Patterson Air Force Base) and with the assets that are growing at our Air National Guard Base and airport in Springfield to play a significant role in that UAS space,” McDorman said.

The industry has seen increasing emphasis in Springfield in recent years. Clark State Community College recently began offering classes in precision agriculture, teaching students to interpret data collected by drones to evaluate the health of crops, for example.

And the Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Aerial Systems Center and Test Complex, located in Springfield, has been tasked with supporting businesses and government entities to conduct research and commercialize technology. The center has 17 Certificates of Authorization, or COAs, that allow public entities to fly drones and conduct research.

The amendments make sense for the region, which also has assets like the Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, said Dave Gallagher, a spokesman for the UAS test center.

“It means more opportunity for Ohio, more growth in UAS and when it comes down to it, more jobs for the region,” Gallagher said.

The test center has received permission for a variety of research projects, ranging from a project with the University of Akron to map invasive species in the Panzer Wetlands area to a project with the Ohio Department of Transportation to examine erosion on a hill in southern Ohio to prevent rock slides.

The biggest benefit of receiving a designation as a federal test site is it would likely speed the process for approval to conduct research, said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial. The company is located at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and specializes in unmanned aerial systems.

“It will more than likely make flying in Springfield much easier,” Beafore said.

Under the current system, most public entities need approval to fly by acquiring a COA, which allow operators to fly under strict conditions and often require a specific vehicle, airspace and mission. Businesses can also apply for an exemption from the FAA that will allow operators to use unmanned aircraft for specific commercial purposes.

But both processes can take time. Beafore said he applied for an exemption to fly a vehicle in September last year but still hasn’t received permission.

The FAA is finalizing the rules that will allow unmanned vehicles to be integrated into national air space. The process has been lengthy, Beafore said. But once companies and local governments have a set of rules under which to operate safely, he said the technology will take off quickly.

“The industry will literally explode,” Beafore said.

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