Clark County, Ohio, was shut out of a federal bid to conduct research on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, but local business and government officials already are moving forward to secure jobs in an industry projected to generate as much as $94 billion across the U.S. by 2020.

This fall, Clark State Community College will unveil a new degree program to train employees in precision agriculture, a growing industry that could eventually produce $339 million for Ohio’s economy in its first three years. And other local companies, including SelectTech Geospatial in Springfield, are already building and researching Unmanned Aerial Systems for use in the commercial market.

Last week, Clark County officials met with Ohio Gov. John Kasich to discuss the region’s role in UAVs, said Mike McDorman, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Among the region’s assets, the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex is located at the Nextedge Applied Research and Technology Park. That site is expected to provide support for universities and government agencies as they conduct research, as well as to promote economic development and commercialization of the technology.

“The governor is committed to growing this in Springfield and growing this in Ohio,” McDorman said. “There’s a huge amount of energy that’s been put into this already by the state.”

The Federal Aviation Administration designation would have benefited the area, said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech Geospatial. Even without it, the region has the resources it needs to manufacture, test and conduct research as the industry evolves. Along with military and government resources such as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Ohio Air National Guard Base in Springfield, numerous educational institutions and private companies were already heavily involved in the industry long before the FAA designation became a possibility.

“I firmly believe that we’ve got literally thousands of people in this region already working on UAVs,” Beafore said. “I’ve got a handful of people working on them here obviously.”

Late last year, the FAA announced sites in Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, New York and Virginia received approval to conduct research to help integrate the technology into U.S. airspace. Ohio and Indiana’s joint proposal was expected to be one of the leading competitors.

“That would have been nice,” Beafore said of the FAA. “That would have put a more positive focus on us. However, we’re the birthplace of aviation, and we’re going to continue to grow in that manner.”

Clark State Community College is starting a degree program this fall that will train students in a precision agriculture program that will blend traditional agriculture classes with new courses such as Data Analytics and Applied GIS for Agriculture. It is expected to be one of just a handful of community colleges nationwide to offer a similar program.

Aurea Rivera, a consultant who helped develop the Clark State program, said it will create a pipeline to train students for a field with increasing demand. One in seven jobs in Ohio is tied to agriculture, so the potential benefits can be significant. Rivera described Clark State’s role as a “center of excellence” for human capital in precision agriculture and UAS data analytics.

The program will focus not on flying or operating the technology, but on being able to understand and analyze information provided by the UAS as they transmit everything from the mix of chemicals in the soil to the amount of fertilizer being used.

The region has numerous other resources as well, she said, including Avetec, a non-profit research facility that focuses on high-tech data collection, along with modeling and simulation in the aviation industry. That firm recently merged with the Advanced Technical Intelligence Center located in Beavercreek.

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“Springfield has state of the art facilities like Avetec that can serve as a nerve center for modeling and simulation efforts related to the UAS technology,” Rivera said.

Both Rivera and Beafore said the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport is also an asset few communities can offer. Although the FAA passed over Ohio as one of its six testing centers, it does not mean UAS cannot be tested in local airspace, said Tom Franzen, director of economic development for Springfield.

Organizations like the Ohio Army National Guard and Sinclair Community College already have active agreements with the FAA, called Certificates of Authorization, to use airspace at the airport under specific conditions, Franzen said. More agreements are also under review.

“A good bulk of the testing for small UAS can occur in that envelope of class D airspace,” Franzen said. “We’re going to continue to work with manufacturers, with commercial applications with sensor development companies, educational centers like Clark State and Sinclair, the University of Dayton and Wright State University and all of those that are working in this field to make the airport available for that activity. The lack of a test center designation does not hamper those efforts or hold them back.”

Rivera also pointed to the Springfield Air National Guard Base, which she noted has trained staff who understand the art of flying UAVs. Earlier this month, Ohio Sen. Sen. Sherrod Brown announced that a proposed federal appropriations bill contained $7.2 million for construction of a new intelligence operations facility at the Springfield Air National Guard Base.

Air National Guard officials were not available for comment, but have previously discussed plans to convert a warehouse into a facility to handle classified information. Squadrons who use the facility analyze sensitive satellite imagery and monitor foreign space launches, among other tasks.

McDorman said much of that work includes data analytics relates to UAS. Although the military operations are separate from commercial uses for the technology, both McDorman and Rivera said there are individuals trained in subjects such as data analytics and cyber security that are also transferable to civilian missions such as agriculture.

“These airmen serve as … subject matter experts that can assist in the mission planning and execution of all flying activities at the airport,” Rivera said. “In addition, the guardsmen have insight into the value of data analytics in support of the warfighting community. These skills are transferable to the civilian missions as well.”

The challenge, Franzen said, is to continue to build relationships between the existing assets the region already has.

“I think the biggest thing is just helping folks understand that there are already a lot of companies here invested in this industry or that have divisions dedicated to UAS and sensor development and so on,” Franzen said. “They were here before we began this effort, and they’re going to be here for a long time.”

©2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)