Unmanned aircraft work at air park quietly growing


Clinton County Port Authority

Recent news about new jobs and facilities at the Wilmington Air Park has been welcome. But I want to take a moment to share with you the quiet progress we’re making on another front: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Wilmington Air Park is becoming known as a base for UAS test flying. The work is slowly making an economic impact on our community and we expect to see additional opportunities for several years.

We are making measurable progress on a long-term plan to lay the groundwork necessary to make Wilmington a national go-to place for UAS research, testing, education, training and ultimately production.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL’s) Center For Rapid Product Development at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is in its second year of UAS test flying at Wilmington Air Park.

If you’ve seen the AFRL team flying its small aircraft here, you might have mistaken it for a radio-control model aircraft club. The aircraft they fly aren’t much different from hobby-store model planes, but these aircraft are the vehicles that carry the sophisticated UAS technology.

AFRL researchers started using Wilmington because it has ample space, it’s lightly used and it’s only about 35 minutes from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Previously, they had to commute 2 ½ hours or more to military test ranges in Indiana.

Others are discovering AFRL’s secret.

The Clinton County Port Authority, which owns Wilmington Air Park, has signed agreements with Sinclair Community College in Dayton to fly UAS at Wilmington as part of the UAS workforce-training program the college is developing.

We also signed an agreement with the Ohio National Guard to allow it to do UAS test flying for the Army. And we’re working on an agreement with the Ohio Department of Transportation to propose a federal UAS air corridor that would link Wilmington Air Park with military airspace zones a few miles to the southeast – something that would increase Wilmington’s value as a UAS test site while ensuring air safety.

This work is important to Wilmington and the whole state, as Ohio and Indiana compete with other states to host one of six federally designated UAS test sites. The sites are intended to help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develop a way for manned and unmanned aircraft to safely share the sky.

Ohio and Indiana recently submitted a joint proposal that would include Wilmington Air Park as one of four test flying locations. When the FAA examines the proposal, it will see that Wilmington is already hosting UAS testing under separate FAA authorizations – in other words, we’ve been there, done that, and we’re ready to help the FAA achieve its objectives.

We believe Wilmington’s size, facilities, location and our growing UAS experience make it one of the strong points in the Ohio-Indiana proposal.

Obtaining a test site designation would bring more UAS work to Wilmington, but we expect the impact over the next five years or so to be modest.

It’s important to understand the test site work won’t be a jobs program. Instead, it will pave the way for integrating manned and unmanned aircraft in the nation’s skies. Opening the airways to unmanned civil and commercial vehicles – for everything from mapping and surveying to, possibly, airfreight – is expected to trigger dramatic growth in the UAS industry. We expect the biggest opportunities to come after the test site has done its work.

In the meantime, participating in the test site program will give Wilmington opportunities to broaden and deepen its UAS experience and learn how to meet the needs of private industry. This will help it become nationally known as a desirable location for private UAS companies.

The port authority isn’t counting on the UAS industry alone to drive growth at Wilmington Air Park. We see it as one part of a diverse portfolio of business activities that we are pursuing, which will result in steady growth over time.

With the UAS test site proposal, we think we’re on the right track with a long-term strategy that will pay dividends when the UAS industry eventually takes off.