State approves $1.5M for Springfield airport drone research

The Ohio Department of Transportation agreed to a $1.5 million contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory to work on a ground-based “sense-and avoid-system” for unmanned aircraft at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.

The research could give Springfield a major advantage in developing an economy around unmanned aircraft and drones, local experts have said.

The Ohio Controlling Board approved the funding on Monday.

>>RELATED: $5M investment at Springfield airport to research unmanned aircraft

The U.S. Air Force and the state of Ohio plan to invest $5 million in research equipment by the end of the year in hopes the Springfield airport will be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for engineers to fly unmanned aircraft beyond their line of sight, something that can’t be done anywhere else in the nation right now.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations require that aircraft be able to see and avoid other aircraft. But remotely piloted aircraft, such as unmanned drones, have to have ground observers or chase aircraft to make sure they steer clear of other vehicles like ultralights, gliders, hot air balloons and crop dusters — all of which may not be easily tracked by air traffic controllers.

The new system under development by the research lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base would use ground-sensors to monitor the airspace for remotely piloted aircraft.

Unmanned aerial systems are increasingly used for precision agriculture, search and rescue, law enforcement functions and environmental monitoring. But to carry out these missions, the unmanned aerial systems need access to the national airspace system.

The ground-based sensor system will be the first such system tested in a high-traffic area. The Ohio/Indiana UAS Test Center, based in Springfield, will operate the equipment.

Supporters say the system will allow for UAS flight testing in Ohio and it could attract companies and investment to the Springfield area.

The new technology could lead to changes in national security and defense operations on top of commercial enterprises using unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, to deliver goods to people’s doorsteps.

The federal and state governments chose Springfield for this new test site because of its prime location to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Art Huber, director of operations at the AFRL, has told the Springfield News-Sun previously.

Before the teams traveled as far as Indiana for flying space like what’s available in Springfield.

Commercially Springfield will try to get a leg up as the “first in the market” with the new testing grounds, Huber has said.

“Less incentive for people to go elsewhere,” he said.

Manufacturers and retailers like Amazon could look to build around the airport, to not only produce drones but to test them right on site, Springfield Airport Manager Don Simon has said.

“That would be significant for the city, for the airport and for the region,” he said.

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