Ohio Uses Drones to Strengthen Aerospace and Aviation Industries

With some states cracking down on drones, Ohio is looking toward working with academia and industry to support a tradition of flight and business innovation.

While many states are waging a legislative battle against commercially available drones, Ohio has been focusing its energy on using unmanned aerial vehicles to boost the state’s vital aerospace and aviation sectors.

Gov. John Kasich even created a specialized department in 2013, the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center, to help the process along. Since that point, the center has pushed forward in its efforts to bolster a blossoming industry and to drive the conversations on policy and research.

Ohio's Director of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Ryan Smith said the state responsible for the Wright Brothers, Astronaut Neil Armstrong and the Kettering Bug (an unmanned aerial torpedo designed in World War I) should have a place at the table when it comes to cultivating the next wave of aviation technologies.  

Smith, who hails from a family of pilots himself, brings more than 23 years of experience as an Air Force officer, fighter and test pilot, and diplomat, so it’s no surprise he was selected to head up the UAS center.

“All along, Ohio has had a great history in [aerospace and aviation]. We’re the No. 1 supplier to both Boeing and Airbus, so there are a lot of parts and pieces of airplanes that are made and developed right here in the state of Ohio,” Smith said. “Ohio has been a leader in aerospace and aviation, and if aerospace is going to take this turn and go into the unmanned area, it seems like a good fit for the state to be able to grow along with this industry.”

With more than 1,200 aerospace component manufacturers in the state, and nearly 500 aviation-related businesses, Ohio is inextricably linked with the aeronautics industries.

Smith said making the jump into drone research, policy development and the building of industry partnerships was not only essential for a business-positive environment, but it was also a natural fit.

“UAS technologies and developments, that business space, was one of Gov. Kasich’s top three economic opportunities that he was looking at. Really, he put an emphasis behind it to make it a reality,” Smith said. “What we’re trying to do is really create and environment, or an ecosystem, where we are able to get businesses to grow in Ohio, and we’re able to support them and nourish them in a business-friendly environment...”

Through collaboration with federal research laboratories, colleges and universities, and private industry, the center is developing new ways of looking at ongoing issues in the state.

One such partnership with Ohio State University is leveraging the technology to assess the impacts of agriculture on the land and waterways.

“We flew about 145 flights this summer to do precision agriculture work in conjunction with Ohio State University, where we’re looking at doing research from crop emergence to compaction on the ground from where combines and large, heavy tractors are driving across," he said. "We’re starting to look at runoff from our fields into the different lakes to look at algae blooms in Ohio.”

Federal Aviation Administration regulations limit UASs to 55 pounds or less, but Smith said the amount of information available from an ever-evolving host of sensors and camera systems doesn’t limit the versatility of smaller systems.

“The most difficult thing about working at a UAS center right now is that every day someone comes up with a great idea about how to get data from a UAS that makes us smack ourselves upside the head and say, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’” he said. “It’s just that the ideas for using them are so many.”

To date, the center has received calls from other states interested in establishing similar programs. Despite what some would see as competition, Smith said anything to do with UASs will likely lead back in one form or another to his state and the industries it houses.

“We’ve been really happy to help people get going because anything that helps the industry develop, we think the conversation will eventually turn back to Ohio, because it gets back to those component manufacturers,” he said. “If you need batteries to fly, well, we make batteries in Ohio. If you need electronics for the data link to fly wherever it is you want to go fly, we make those in Ohio. Even as the industry grows nationwide, we think it only helps our footing with it here.” 

When it comes to what Smith sees for the future of drones, he said he is looking forward to advancements in ground-based, sense-and-avoid technology, as well as the ability to fly beyond line-of-sight, which would be a hugely useful tool in agriculture centers like Ohio.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.