Ohio competing for UAV testing sites

Winners will reap jobs, investments. Two dozen states are fighting for a chance to land 1 of the 6 sites.

“You would probably see several hundreds of millions (of dollars) in positive impact,” said Dennis J. Andersh, Dayton regional account executive and a senior vice president for Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

Ohio is competing with at least two dozen other states to be selected for one of six test-flying sites that will help the Federal Aviation Administration determine how to ensure safe operation of unmanned aerial vehicles in the nation’s airspace. The designation, expected in December, would kick off a five-year testing period, though Congress has said it wants unmanned aircraft integrated into national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

The local payoff could be substantial. Host states could attract jobs and millions of dollars in business investment.

The six sites would burnish their national credentials as go-to centers for unmanned aircraft expertise.

The commercial potential for UAVs, now used almost exclusively by the military, is virtually limitless.

The FAA is still working out ground rules for operating the test locations. The law Congress passed to mandate the sites contains no money for creation, management or oversight of the sites, so the competing states will have to provide financing and management plans, among other operational information.

That hasn’t stopped the interest, which is coast to coast, with a handful of states considered frontrunners.

Ohio will likely propose multiple take-off sites to the FAA, in order to allow more test flights during the same time period, said Jim Leftwich, a former Dayton Development Coalition president serving as a consultant to Ohio Gov. John Kasich on aerospace and unmanned aircraft matters.

Those sites will likely include Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, Wilmington Air Park and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Plum Brook Station near Sandusky in northern Ohio, Leftwich said.

“We’re just looking across the state ... where we can bring the full capabilities of the state to bear upon this opportunity,” Leftwich said.

Ohio is still working out financial details of how the test site would operate, including user fees it could charge to support the operation, Leftwich said. He declined to elaborate, saying the plan isn’t completed.

Details of the site requirements won’t be out until sometime in July when the FAA issues requests for proposals, industry officials said. Congress provided some general guidance. That included directing the FAA to work with the Defense Department and NASA, and to ensure diversity in climate and geography when choosing the six test sites.

The states wishing to compete will likely have to submit their proposals by September, the officials said. That’s when the number of competitors will be known.

A FAA website created to accept public comment on how the agency should shape requirements for the test sites attracted more than 200 comments from organizations nationwide. The agency stopped accepting those comments on May 8 and is reviewing them.

$90 billion worldwide

The designation of a test site in Ohio could mean hundreds of new jobs at Wilmington Air Park, a onetime Air Force base and former DHL express delivery hub, where the Air Force Research Laboratory already flies small unmanned aircraft, said executive director Kevin Carver of the Clinton County Port Authority, the airport’s owner. The air park is home to an airplane maintenance company and other businesses but is looking for additional tenants, he said.

Leaders of Dayton’s effort to develop a proposal for the FAA declined to release specific projections of unmanned aircraft-related economic development potential. But the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace industry analyst, projects worldwide unmanned aircraft spending at about $90 billion during the next 10 years.

The military is obviously a big customer, as the Pentagon has shown a huge appetite for Global Hawks, Reapers and Predators — unmanned aircraft programs managed from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The Central Intelligence Agency is using remotely piloted planes to kill terrorists in Pakistan, prompting protests from that country.

But the potential goes well beyond the military. Industry analysts project development of larger civilian markets for small unmanned planes to be flown for border patrol, disaster-response operations, farm crop and power line monitoring, and law enforcement surveillance. Surveillance uses have prompted objections from civil libertarians, concerned that the “eyes in the sky” could be used to spy on residents in their homes.

The presence of Wright-Patterson has helped jump-start the industry locally. SAIC made a big bet on the future of the region’s unmanned aircraft industry, and its importance to R&D and acquisition programs at Wright-Patterson, by committing last year to move a total of 215 jobs to the Springfield and Dayton areas from Virginia.

Ohio’s advocates say the state has an attractive and varied aerospace portfolio with Wright-Patterson and the region’s unmanned aircraft and sensors research, development and specialized manufacturing; Springfield Air National Guard Base, which supports a Predator unmanned aircraft program, and the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and Wilmington Air Park.

The FAA has also approved the restricted flying of small unmanned aircraft by Sinclair Community College at the Springfield airport, which is to start flying two small remotely piloted planes this summer within the operator’s line of sight in an airspace the size of three football fields over the airport. The Air Force Research Laboratory is already flying small planes in five FAA-approved zones at Wilmington Air Park and may seek FAA approval for additional flying zones there, Carver said.

The University of Dayton and Wright State University are home to research initiatives that support Wright-Patterson. Military contractors grouped near the base support its research, development, acquisition and logistics programs.

NASA’s Glenn Research Center near Cleveland and an Ohio Air National Guard area authorized for training flights over southern Ohio are also part of Ohio’s appeal, the state’s boosters said. Ohio officials hope that the Guard’s Buckeye-Brush Creek military operating area, once used for training flights of F-16 fighters, could eventually be approved for flights of unmanned aircraft.

The Dayton Development Coalition, local companies and universities are working to build Dayton’s expertise in UAV manufacturing, R&D, training and flight certification. The coalition, a nonprofit association of companies and local governments, is working with state governments and the aerospace community to develop what will be Ohio’s pitch to the FAA for a UAV test site.

“When you look at all the elements we have across the state, we think we’re a very, very strong competitor,” said Joe Zeis, the coalition’s executive vice president and chief strategic officer.

No desert or ocean

Other factors work against Ohio.

Potentially standing in its way for an FAA-designated test site are other states with Air Force bases, NASA research centers, university consortiums, wide-open spaces including deserts and plains, and coastlines. North Dakota, New Mexico, Indiana, Arizona, Florida, Maryland and Virginia are among the states with expertise that have expressed interest to the FAA.

Congress has ordered that the FAA designate the test sites and be prepared to fully integrate the unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace. The aircraft can be flown either autonomously by on-board systems or remotely by ground-based pilots.

The FAA has said the test sites will generate information about UAV flying that will be used to determine how they can safely operate in airspace shared by manned airplanes. Still to be decided is who will collect and distribute that information and determine the operational restrictions for the sites.

Defense contractors and the Air Force are developing “sense and avoid” technology that the researchers hope will be proven reliable to allow UAVs to detect oncoming planes and change course to miss them. Tests will involve the UAVs and their supporting equipment including sensors and command and control systems, collectively known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Important, but not critical

Even if Ohio should be bypassed in the FAA’s designation of UAV flying sites, the state’s established aerospace capabilities should help it build long-lasting relationships with the FAA, Air Force and NASA, Ohio’s advocates said. Ohio is already the No. 1 supplier among all states to the French aircraft manufacturer Airbus and is the No. 2 supplier to Boeing Co.

But having an FAA-designated UAV test site nearby would attract unmanned aircraft manufacturers to the Dayton region, said Deb Norris, Sinclair’s vice president overseeing the school’s UAV pilot training program. Sinclair hosted an unmanned aircraft industry conference in April and will host another one in April 2013.

Some Dayton area companies currently go to the Indiana Air National Guard’s Camp Atterbury, near Columbus, Ind., to do test flights in restricted military airspace.

SAIC’s Andersh said his company went to California for test flights when its UAV operation was in northern Virginia. That meant investing about a month to pack up its unmanned planes and support equipment for the travel and testing.

SAIC has since moved its UAV hardware and assembly operations to Springfield, along with other jobs in suburban Dayton.

Andersh said having designated airspace for testing in Ohio would put the industry here on a different plane.

But it’s not a make or break deal.

“It would be great to get one of those sites,” he said. “It’s important, but I won’t say critical. What we’re trying to build is something that lasts well beyond those test sites.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2242 or jnolan@DaytonDailyNews.com.

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