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Small town in Ohio leading the way for unmanned flight research

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Posted at 9:56 AM, Aug 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-06 14:07:40-04

CLEVELAND — If you don't know what you're looking at as you drive around Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport in Springfield, Ohio, it's easy to miss the fact that you're looking at what could be the future of transportation.

Some of that future is already operating in a converted bus. Other parts are still being built just a few hundred feet away from the airport's runways. When entrepreneurs and researchers come to fly their crafts, they sometimes work off folding tables in the middle of a massive grass field.

In the last few weeks, the United States has seen two private companies fly their billionaire owners to the edge of space, inspiring some Americans about the next generation of space travel. Others are frustrated about the resources those trips take.

But space travel is still years away, especially for anyone who can't shell out millions to pay for it.

The work being done in Ohio is well within the earth's atmosphere but beyond what most people might realize is already possible.

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FILE - In this Thursday, May 9, 2019 file photo, Jeff Bezos speaks in front of a model of Blue Origin's Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Sir Richard Branson poses in front of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket after it was unveiled, Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, in Mojave, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Our Future Vehicles

You'd be forgiven for thinking some of the experimental aircraft looks like person-sized toys in the pictures and video that have been circulating so far.

"We make a personal aerial vehicle," said LIFT Aircraft's Director of Business Development, Kevin Rustagi. "This is a very small aircraft. People say it's like you're sitting in a flying drone."

Eventually, Americans might use vehicles like LIFTs to make short trips through the air to the store or to run other errands. For now, the company is focusing on making them for first responders to use to save lives. Rustagi says most people can train pretty quickly to fly it well.

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LIFT's personal aerial vehicle could change the way we run errands in the future. For now, the company is trying to make them available for first responders.

"So you could see any paramedic or EMT, he or she would be able to become a pilot and be able to respond immediately to an accident site if it's up to 15 miles away," Rustagi said.

Testing for the Future

Figuring out how aircraft, uncrewed vehicles or something like a flying car can navigate the skies is a long process with an intimidating obstacle course of safety rules and regulations.

The key to making crewless flights profitable is to fly long distances safely without someone watching from the ground or a chase plane in the air.

Springfield Assistant City Manager and Director of Economic Development Tom Franzen says developers are close to figuring out how to make that happen safely.

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"They have to prove that it's safe to fly beyond visual line-of-sight without a pilot in the vehicle or a chase plane or a visual observer keeping eyes on it," said Franzen.

“The technology’s here,” Franzen said. "I think it's really more of the legal framework, the airspace approvals, the FAA guidance that will have to catch up that makes it something we see every day."

Navigating the obstacle course of rules and regulations is the hard part, especially for companies like LIFT that are trying to break into the personal and unmanned flight spaces.

That's why the Ohio Department of Transportation's initiatives FlyOhio and DriveOhio are trying to lay some of the groundwork for those companies.

"The key to that is making sure that ground and air are working together," said DriveOhio Communications and Policy Managing Director Luke Stedke. "At DriveOhio/FlyOhio we're talking about cutting red tape, so the more that we can do to clear the table for these companies to come here and develop, the better it's going to be for all of us."

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Stedke shows BETA Technologies quick charge location under construction in Springfield.

The key is that Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. The state already has special permission from the FAA to fly unmanned and experimental aircraft up to 10,000 feet in the air and 225 square miles, giving companies like LIFT a large playground to refine their technology and vehicles.

"I think it's important for the companies that are trying to prove out their product," Franzen said.

One of the most important pieces of proving the product is a converted bus that sits in the middle of the airfield. "SkyVision" is the connection between drone operators and more traditional aircraft while the drones figure out how to fly safely around more conventional air traffic.

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Rich Fox explains how he helps drone operators keep their aircraft away from manned aircraft in Springfield.

SkyVision is similar to Air Traffic Control for airplanes in the sense that it tracks uncrewed vehicles and communicates with the operators. It's staffed by former Air Traffic Controllers like Rich Fox, who is quick to point out that he cannot order drones to move in the same way he could tell pilots to change their path in the past. Instead, he helps drone operators have situational awareness for what their craft is near and how they might move away from it.

That work keeps everyone safe but also offers a glimpse into the future to see how drones and traditional aircraft can co-exist.

"By using the same equipment, the same radar feeds the Air Traffic Controllers use, enabled us to get approval by the FAA because they were comfortable with seeing their own equipment," Fox said.

The Payoff

Everyone agrees the key to making the research and development possible in Springfield is the long list of local, state, and federal agencies that have partnered up over the last decade to help cut through red tape. "The feedback we've gotten is: no other state has got it together in terms of that collaborative environment like Ohio does," said Dayton Development Coalition Executive Vice President for Aerospace and Defense Elaine Bryant.

In the same way, the work is being funded through private and public investment because much of the work originated through the Department of Defense and the nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

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"We've definitely established how manned-aircraft works," said Lt. Col. Kimball. "We've got to figure out how to safely integrate the unmanned system."

Air Force Lieutenant Colonial Dan Kimball says the technology will eventually touch all of our lives, whether military or civilian.

"The commercial side is driving this just as much as the military," Kimball said. "Think about all these unmanned drone delivery systems. Amazon, Kroger, anything where you can unmanned deliver something is going to be a huge asset for the commercial industry."

This spring, Ohio joined NASA's campaign to spark innovative ways to move things and people through the air. Long before NASA formally recognized it, though, Ohio was making serious progress not only with experimentation but by building the infrastructure to support future projects.

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"A lot of folks sometimes don't realize that this is not just the Jetsons," said Bryant. "This is happening today. We're flying."

BETA Technologies is already building a rapid charge station/vertiport structure for aerial vehicles with training and office families feet away.

But the next race worth winning is to be the place where companies like LIFT and BETA come to mass-produce their vehicles once the demand for them justifies large investment in manufacturing facilities. The hope is that the relationships built now during the research and development phase will eventually lead to large investments later.

"After the research, development, and testing, you can go to prototyping and then to manufacturing, and I think Ohio really provides that complete solution," Franzen said.

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Simulators allow companies to test their programs more often and for less money.

That would be a huge economic boom for the region and the entire state of Ohio, but Bryant also points out this is about national security too. Car manufacturers across the Midwest shut down for weeks because of a global semiconductor shortage.

"We want to make sure that manufacturing is done with U.S. sources, U.S. products, U.S. chips, U.S. security because that's how we're going to secure that long-term security against our adversaries," Bryant said.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Wright Brothers tinkered with early airplane prototypes just down the road at their bike shop in Dayton. More than a century later, the tinkering looks a lot different, but the underlying purpose of the work is the same: The skies aren't the limit; they're just what's next.

"You look at the traffic, and everybody is stuck on the very, very expensive road which cost billions of dollars to make and all sorts of greenhouse emissions to build, and then you look up at the sky, and you see nothing," Rustagi said. "Totally open skies."

This story was originally published by Kevin Barry on Scripps station WEWS in Cleveland.