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Aviation’s New Frontier: How Ohio Aims to Be a Leader in Drone Research

Ohio's director of Unmanned Aerial Systems discusses his mission to see how the state can put drones to work in a region known for its aviation heritage.

Ryan Smith is no stranger to flying.

The 23-year U.S. Air Force officer and fighter pilot has spent his fair share of time in the cockpit — he’s even played guinea pig as a test pilot for private industry. But Smith’s new mission is taking him into uncharted territory and has him looking at how Ohio can put drones to work in a state known for its aviation heritage.

In 2013, Gov. John Kasich created the Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center in an attempt to promote research, policy and industry around unmanned aerial systems (UASs). While many states are focused on taking regulatory action to limit drones, the state responsible for the Wright brothers and astronaut Neil Armstrong is hoping its efforts will translate to big returns for aerospace and aviation companies that call Ohio home.

Smith, formally known as the director of Unmanned Aerial Systems for Ohio, talked with Government Technology's Public CIO about the program’s mission and what it will ultimately mean for the state.

Q: How did you land your role at the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center?

I graduated from the Air Force Academy with a bachelor of science degree in physics, and I was an Air Force officer for 23 years. During that time I was an F-15C fighter pilot, a diplomat and also an experimental test pilot for about 15 of those 23 years. After that I retired and went to work for the Boeing Company in Seattle as an engineering test pilot and then came here to Ohio. I think the thing that would make a guy with my background interesting to the state … is that it combines the technical expertise of a flight test background with my diplomatic ability to develop policy, to work with government officials and also with the local industry.


“The main mission is to set the climate so that the industry can develop in the state," says Ryan Smith, director of Unmanned Aerial Systems for Ohio. Photo by Todd Joyce, ©2015

The cool thing about me, quite frankly, is that I’ve been flying since I was a little, tiny kid. I was born on March 2 and my dad took me for my first airplane ride on March 7. I come from a family of aviators. My mom and dad are both pilots, and I just grew up in aviation, which is how I got to the Air Force Academy. This is just one more step on the leading edge of aviation for me.

Q: Was the UAS Center a tough sell in the beginning? What barriers, if any, did the center face and what ultimately won over decision-makers?

The earlier discussions go all the way back to 2008 when Ohio was looking at maybe starting to play in the UAS space, and that was probably centered around the Air Force Research Laboratory in the Dayton area before it became a state discussion. The center itself set up in 2013, and none of us were there at the beginning. I doubt if it was a tough sell — the governor was convinced and he put that forward as one of his economic policies. We’re an aviation state. I think it was a natural thing for us to flow into this area, and for the decision-makers, it’s really just a matter of deciding to put the muscle and support of the state behind the effort.

Q: What sort of work are you doing at the center and what types of UASs are you working with?

The industry itself, because of the way the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulated it, is really only permitted to use aircraft that are 55 pounds and under, so that’s what we’re focused on in Ohio. We do have Air National Guard units that fly Predator and Reaper missions overseas from here in Ohio, but that’s quite a bit different from what the UAS Center does. We’re focused on aircraft 55 pounds and below. When you ask, “What’s going on in them?” well, everything is going on in them. 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. We’re starting to look at runoff from our fields into the different lakes to look at algae blooms in Ohio.

The ideas for using it are so many. We’ve looked at using them for bridge inspections for our Department of Transportation, and we’ve been able to fly over and evaluate different manhole cover issues. In 2013, there was a large windstorm and a tornado that went through the Toledo/Bowling Green area, and the first aircraft out to be able to look at the extent of the damage was a UAS from the Ohio Department of Transportation. As many ways as people can think of using them, we’re trying to do that.

The main mission is to set the climate so that the industry can develop in the state. That means we’re going to be looking at how federal rules apply to industry in Ohio and to aircraft in Ohio. … I think we will be working within the environment in the state, between the Legislature and the administration, to make sure we have all of the legal aspects covered in a way that makes Ohio a favorable place to come and fly and do business. I really think we’re going to stay focused on the commercial aspects. My personal hope is that efforts will not be regulatory but that we would just be able to go along with the federal regulations and to allow a lot of freedom of development and ingenuity. And I hope that we’re a place where we can try out new ideas.

Q: What initiatives are underway at the UAS Center?

We’re working through the University of Cincinnati right now doing research on actual, no-kidding wildfires, developing algorithms that would support carrying different products into the fire areas and to be able to support the modeling and simulation of how the wildfires go by collecting that data through UASs so you don’t have aircraft flying through the area.

Typically we do not necessarily do the flying ourselves. We do some flying, but if there is an opportunity for us to be able to connect up a small business with the opportunities to do the actual work, then we will try to leverage what we can to make that happen for them to help industry within the state.

The No. 1 industry in Ohio is agriculture. So if you want to have the biggest impact on the state economy, the real way to touch that is through agriculture. We’re working closely with Ohio State University, which is a land-grant institution, and we go around with them throughout the state to talk about the ability to use UASs in precision agriculture. We’ve been working with them on various opportunities for testing sensors, as well as what to do with data on the back end. How do you collect it all? How do you maintain it and be able to archive it and access it in the future for actually improving the state of agriculture in Ohio?

One of the things I think will really [benefit agriculture] is when they are able to fly beyond visual line of sight. When they can fly 5,000 or 6,000 acres with UASs, that’s when you’re going to start seeing the economic advantages. To do that, you’re going to have to fly beyond line of sight, which right now the FAA does not allow you to do. But in Ohio we’re partnered with the Air Force Research Laboratory, and we’re setting up the first civilian, ground-based sense-and-avoid system that will potentially allow us to fly beyond line of sight with the smaller UASs. We are obviously a partner in this, but we’re leveraging the Air Force’s knowledge and ability to do it.

Q: What sort of successes have you seen so far as a state agency working with private industry?

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which is the big trade group for the UAS industry, there are eight small UAS manufacturers in the state of Ohio, 14 colleges and universities that have a UAS program of some sort, 50 companies that have the [FAA exemptions] that allow them to do commercial UAS operation in Ohio, and more than 60 small businesses that are specifically focused on UAS activities, so we’ve seen growth. Estimates are that that could be a couple hundred jobs to our economy here and that within the next decade, Ohio’s share would be around 2,700 jobs and around $2 billion of economic activity within the state.

Q: Has there been a lot of interest in the UAS program from other states?

We do get contacted by a lot of departments of transportation in other states asking us what we are doing because we have been on the leading edge of using the technology. 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. 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 here. ¨