Midwest shunned in drone site decision

Disappointed local officials say research here won’t stop.

The federal government rejected the Dayton region as a site to test unmanned aerial vehicles, delivering a major blow to state officials who had argued that the combined Ohio-Indiana application and the presence of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base would have made an ideal location.

None of the six sites selected are located in the Midwest, and four of the six — Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas — are west of the Mississippi River. The other sites involved the politically powerful states of New York (working with Massachusetts) and Virginia (working with New Jersey).

In a conference call with reporters, Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency made its choices based in part on geographic and climate “diversity.”

Local officials expressed disappointment. “Clearly, the Midwest has been left out,’’ said Michael Gessel, vice president of the Washington office of the Dayton Development Coalition, which helped organize Ohio’s application.

Jeff Hoagland, Dayton Development Coalition President and CEO, said despite the decision, testing and development of unmanned aerial systems will continue in the Dayton region.

Testing, commercialization and manufacturing of the drones was projected to create up to 10,000 jobs over a period of years in the region, but even with the test site designation lost, the new technology could still create thousands of jobs here, Hoagland said. The Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center and Test Complex in Springfield will continue to operate, he said.

“Our role in UAS development will push forward, and I am certain that the Dayton region will continue to be a location of choice for those companies that want to locate among the most important developers of UAS technology, the Air Force Research Laboratory (at Wright Patterson Air Force Base) and NASA Glenn” in Cleveland, Hoagland said.

Exactly how much the region loses in terms of job growth because of the decision remains unclear, Hoagland added.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the FAA’s decision, saying Ohio is “a national leader in aerospace, and would have been an ideal location for one of the sites.”

“Over 100,000 Ohioans work in aerospace, where they develop and build cutting-edge technologies and world-class commercial and military equipment,” Portman said.

Most local officials contacted Monday insisted the decision is not earth-shattering.

“As we’ve said all along, we saw an upside to being designated as one of the test centers, but it was not critical to the overall effort that we’ve been formulating along with the state,” said Tom Franzen, director of economic development for the city of Springfield.

Clark County Commissioner John Detrick expressed concern the state has been passed over for high-profile projects in recent years. In 2011, the federal government turned down a request from the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson to host a retired space shuttle, with the government choosing sites in California, Virginia and Florida.

Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, said despite the FAA decision, “Ohio will continue to be a national leader in this new industry,’’ adding that “while we think Ohio certainly has the assets to be deserving of the FAA designation, our efforts have already resulted in valuable developments that will help us continue to shape the future of this exciting new industry and further the economic comeback of our state and region.”

Ohio and Indiana submitted a 6,000-page application last May two years after Ohio lawmakers inserted language in an FAA bill calling for the establishment of the six sites.

Huerta declined to elaborate on why Dayton/Springfield was not selected but said he has offered to privately brief those sites not selected. “This was a very robust competition,” he said. “We received many, many great proposals.’’

Gessel said that “until the FAA offers a de-briefing, it is uncertain what criteria they used to make the final selection.’’

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said that “while Dayton was not initially selected as a test site for UAS integration, our region will benefit from being on the cutting edge of innovation and development in unmanned systems.’’

“As the industry continues to grow, the expertise and experience in the Miami Valley will further boost the region as a leader in aviation technology and attract new industry to the area,’’ Turner said.

Mike McDorman, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, said the area remains well-positioned to benefit as research continues into unmanned systems, and he believes the region can still play a significant role in the development of data analytics, manufacturing and sensors research.

Some said they were surprised by the choices made by the FAA. John Leland, Director of the University of Dayton Research Institute and Associate Vice President for Research, University of Dayton, said the decision was unexpected.

“Dayton submitted a very strong and comprehensive proposal,” Leland said. “And based on media coverage of the FAA’s decision to date, we felt that we brought equal or greater assets and stature to the table as the sites that were named this morning.”

But he added: “The University of Dayton, along with Sinclair Community College and Wright State University, have built up a great deal of research activity around development platforms for unmanned aircraft, and this news will not diminish that activity in any way.”

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