Years of work set stage for Kroger, other drone flight innovators

Securing FAA authorization to fly beyond line of sight was key.

Kroger’s first commercial drone delivery only took a few minutes Wednesday. But there’s an historical through-line between that brief flight in Centerville and years of work by local advocates pursuing federal authorization for a certain kind of drone research in the Dayton and Springfield areas.

That first drone delivery did not happen in the New Jersey backyard of TELEGRID Technologies’ drone operator Drone Express. It didn’t happen in the vicinity of Kroger’s Cincinnati headquarters or any of the company’s Queen City stores.

It happened in the Miami Valley area. Local advocates say that’s no accident.

“Proximity matters. We truly believe that. And we’re seeing that now more than ever,” said Jeff Hoagland, president and chief executive officer of the Dayton Development Coalition.

The coalition is the organization whose executives and staff pushed for years to achieve Federal Aviation Administration authorization for “BVLOS” (beyond visual line of sight) control of drones — operating a drone beyond a drone pilot’s ability to see the craft, without a chase plane following or observing.

That authorization was won in April 2019 by the Air Force Research Laboratory, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center in Springfield and AFRL started testing the technology at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.

Loren Thompson, a nationally consulted defense industry analyst and chief operating officer of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said at the time that the Dayton-Springfield region might be the only locale in the nation with FAA authorization for BVLOS research.

“This is the latest step in Dayton’s continued emergence as an aerospace innovation center,” Thompson said in 2019. “Unmanned aircraft are the wave of the future in aerospace, and now the Dayton area will have a major flight testing facility.”

The door was opened.

Through that door stepped an engineer named Beth Flippo.

‘The right people’

Flippo, principal engineer and chief technology officer for TELEGRID Technologies Inc., said her company was drawn to the Dayton area for two reasons.

First, TELEGRID’s customer, Kroger, is headquartered in southwest Ohio.

And second, the area already was practicing the kind of drone flight her company needed to work with Kroger — BVLOS flight.

“After several visits, we realized that aviation is just in the blood of the people in Dayton,” Flippo said. “And even though Kroger was in Cincinnati, we knew this was really where all flights were happening, all the newest aircraft are being built at Wright-Patt.”

She added: “If we wanted to find the right people, if we wanted to find people who knew how to run a factory to build these kinds of things and fly this type of equipment, it had to be Dayton.”

TELEGRID will hire 50 to 100 people at its Monroe manufacturing center to build drones for Kroger and other customers.

The move was a risky one. Flippo moved from New Jersey even before her company had cemented its relationship with Kroger, said Micah Newburg, the Dayton Development Coalition’s manager for business development in aerospace and defense.

“She knew that she wanted to tackle the 800-pound gorilla and grocery chain Kroger,” Newburg recounted. “She moved here without any real connections to Kroger.”

FAA officials, with whom Flippo had long been working, in turn told her that if she was going to Ohio, “You need to meet with the National UAS (unmanned aerial systems) Center (the UAS Center in Springfield) and also look at flying BVLOS in Springfield,” Newburg said.

That’s exactly what Flippo did. Soon, the coalition introduced her to Andrew Shepherd, Sinclair Community College’s executive director and chief scientist for unmanned aerial systems, and secondly, the state’s FlyOhio organization.

From those introductions and meetings came contacts with Kroger, Newburg said. The rest is history.

“Six months later she (Flippo) is on a contract with Kroger to do flights outside of Centerville’s store,” he said.

‘This is a fantastic step forward’

The approval of BVLOS flight in Springfield was itself years in the making, starting from the early days of the unmanned aircraft industry, coalition advocates said.

Retired Air Force Col. Joe Zeis helped start the work while he worked with the coalition. Today, he advises Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on the state’s defense and aerospace strategy.

“It is really the embodiment of that BVLOS technology that we as a region and state have pursued over the long term,” Zeis said in a statement last week, celebrating Kroger’s achievement.

“To be commercially viable, a UAV really needs to operate safely and effectively beyond the line of sight of the original departure location. I think this is a fantastic step forward, and to see an Ohio company lead the way forward is extraordinary,” Zeis added.

Hoagland joined the coalition in 2011, as drone technology was fast becoming a top priority. The FAA issued a solicitation seeking six UAS test sites across the nation. At the time, Zeis was leading the effort to have Dayton-Springfield named one of those test sites.

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

The region did not win that effort. But neither did it give up, Hoagland said. The next step became BVLOS authorization, opening new vistas in drone control.

“We had a vision,” Hoagland said. “We had a plan, and we put that plan in execution. ... Thank goodness we did it.”

Coalition and Air Force leaders understood that beyond visual line of sight flight could create new commercial and research opportunities. Achieve that, and companies would flock to the region, they believed.

“We want them to come here to test and stay here to build,” said Shannon Joyce Neal, a coalition spokeswoman quoting her colleague Elaine Bryant, the coalition’s executive vice president for aerospace and defense.

Hoagland and his team point now to the Air Force’s $35 million push for electric flying vehicles capable of nimble vertical takeoffs and landings, vehicles sometimes called “flying cars.”

Though the pioneers in that field range across the country, Springfield is again exerting a magnetic pull. The Air Force development effort, dubbed “Agility Prime,” is overseen at AFRL at Wright-Patterson, and in December, the Air Force broke ground for an “advanced urban air mobility technology simulator” and charging station at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Development in flying cars is moving “five times faster” then advancements in drones, Hoagland said. “You can’t slow it down. It’s just happening.”

Vyrtx, a Dayton life-critical transport company, is refining its own drone flight capabilities in preparation for work transporting human organs for medical purposes, coalition members say.

“We’re hosting companies who want to be Springfield on a monthly basis,” Newburg said.

“Here we are today, and now we’re talking about Agility Prime,” Hoagland said. “We’re talking about flying cars.”

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