Undaunted by federal rejection, Michigan pursues drone opportunities

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Capital News Service
LANSING – While the state recently lost its bid for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone test site in northern Michigan, aviation officials insist they’ll be able to advance the new industry.

The FAA recently designated sites in six other states, none in the Great Lakes region. Those now have federal support for civil and commercial exploration of what are known as unmanned aerial systems.
The competition received 25 applications from 24 states. The winners are Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
Michigan remains committed to advancing the fledgling industry, said Rick Carlson, transport and safety manager for the Department of Transportation (MDOT) Office of Aeronautics.
“We want to move ahead and attract business,” he said.

Operators of the chosen sites still must obtain a waiver allowing designated pilots to operate drones.
“The real advantage of being selected would be you would receive expedited handling from the FAA,” said Matt Brinker, an MDOT aeronautics specialist. Additionally, business will flood the chosen test sites because of their federal sponsorship.
Beyond that, not much has changed.
Carlson said advocates in Michigan are determined to bring the unmanned aerial industry to the state through research and testing, regardless of the FAA’s decision.
They have formed the Michigan Advanced Aerial Systems Consortium, a group of government, academic and industry officials interested in developing unmanned aerial systems.
Agriculture will make up 80 percent of business for unmanned aerial vehicles – UAVs – said Aaron Cook, director of aviation for Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City and vice-chair of the consortium.
Tasks like irrigation, pest control and plant health surveying are some examples of ways that unmanned aerial vehicles could assist farmers, he said.
The energy industry in Michigan may also benefit from drones, Cook said. For example, unmanned aircraft could inspect cell or TV towers, bridges, windmills and power lines.
The craft “can fly where it is very difficult for people to get to,” said Aaron Johnson, business development manager for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and treasurer of the consortium.
Unmanned aerial systems are heavily regulated in the United States because of federal restrictions regarding the safety of manned aircraft and of people on the ground.
The consortium, with its head office at the Alpena County Regional Airport, is a nonprofit organization created to advance the industry in Michigan and across the country. The group encourages research and education partnerships with colleges and universities throughout the state.
Northwestern Michigan College “is in its fourth year of the UAV program and we are the only school in the Great Lakes region offering UAV training,” said Cook.
Unmanned aircraft technology requires expertise in engineering, remote sensing, computer software and flight training, he said.
Alpena Community College officials see the potential to include drone instruction in their program that teaches students about underwater surveying and recording with robots and remotely operated vehicles.
“I definitely am excited about having complementary technology,” said David Cummins, the college’s marine technology program advisor. His program currently focuses on construction, maintenance and operation of underwater technology.
Jessica Batanian and Evan Kreager report for Great Lakes Echo.

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