Michigan pushes $17M toward commercial drone infrastructure
Posted By: Detroit News on August 21, 2023. For more information, please click here to read the source article.
The state of Michigan is starting to explore how to create “highways in the sky” to prepare the state’s aeronautic infrastructure for the advent of commercial drone usage.
In the new state budget that starts Oct. 1, the Legislature appropriated $17 million for infrastructure to support the launch of commercial drones that could one day deliver everything from groceries to epipens.
The money was signed into law weeks ahead of the expected release of a feasibility report assessing how the state could make commercial drone flights a reality — and meet federal scrutiny.
The allocation in the state budget marks the first time the Michigan Department of Transportation will receive direct state dollars for infrastructure supporting unmanned aerial systems and other advanced aeronautic priorities. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. has awarded roughly $1 million in grants over the last several years to about 15 companies specializing in commercial drone usage, but none for a state-driven effort to build out the drone corridors.
The grants come ahead of the expected release of a study that looks at commercial drone use in three key locations: the Detroit area, to study urban deployment; the Traverse City area, to study urban, rural and overwater flights; and the Detroit-Windsor crossing, to look at cross-border implementation.
The study done in cooperation with the Ontario province and several other partners is expected to make recommendations regarding potential uses for commercial drone technology, its economic impact and the infrastructure needed to facilitate the emerging industry.
Providing the flight pathways and radar systems necessary for the commercial drone industry falls within the state’s overall infrastructure responsibilities, said Bryan Budds, an administrator for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Aeronautics.
“We have to provide those highways in the sky,” Budds said.
Of the $17 million allocated in the budget, $10 million goes directly to MDOT for advanced aeronautics infrastructure — including more futuristic elements such as vertiports and electric passenger planes — and $7 million to a Battle Creek economic development agency trying to set up its own commercial drone program at the local airport.
MDOT is still unsure of how it will use its funding as it works with the Legislature to clarify intent and as it awaits a final copy of the study.
“We still invested an overwhelming majority of the budget into legacy projects like roads and bridges,” said Rep. Ranjeev Puri, a Canton Township Democrat who helped shape the transportation budget. “What was unique about this budget was we spent a little bit of money on new technology and mobility initiatives.
“I want Michigan to still be the transportation capital of the world.”
Michigan needs ‘playbook’ for infrastructure
Michigan largely is seeking to obtain Federal Aviation Administration clearances that would allow for air corridors where drones would be able to fly “beyond visual line of sight,” an essential approval needed for any sort of serious commercial drone operation in the state.
To establish those corridors, various studies of potential risks of crashes with ground or air objects, additional radar systems at low altitudes and coordination with commercial manned aircraft is necessary — a process that the state kicked off with the feasibility study expected to be released soon.
“That’s what the state is doing,” said Michael Healander, president and CEO for Detroit-based Airspace Link. “They’re building up the roads and hardware and systems for operators to fly BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight).”
Airspace Link, which won the contract for the unmanned aerial system feasibility study, operates internationally to help states and cities to set up drone infrastructure compliant with state and federal requirements. Healander boils down the task to the creation of “Google Maps for drones, but the roads aren’t built yet.”
That study led by Healander’s company is complete and should be published in the coming weeks, said Charlie Tyson, technology activation director for the Michigan Office of Future Mobility within the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
“The goal is for that to be a playbook that we can utilitize to take to the FAA to get beyond visual line of site drone operations approval for certain use cases,” Tyson said. “There’s active and ongoing conversations with FAA led through MDOT aeronautics.”
The establishment of the “beyond visual line of sight corridors” corridors would allow operators with the proper regulatory approvals of their equipment to seek waivers to fly equipment beyond visual line of site.
Figuring out uses
State officials said potential uses anticipated with the technology and infrastructure include small package deliveries, last-mile logistics or even the use of drones in firefighting operations.
Officials got a sneak peek of one potential use at Operation Northern Strike at Camp Grayling last week, when Brighton-based Blueflite demonstrated its products and their potential to transport medical supplies and other items to areas where ground vehicles wouldn’t be able to safely reach.
James McClearen, cofounder and chief technology officer for Blueflite, said the company, which makes unmanned aircraft and software to sell to operators, has also launched pilot programs testing its equipment for transport of lab-to-lab samples, deliveries of AEDs, epipens and Narcans in emergency situations and medication deliveries to front lines in combat areas.
The company has received a grant through the state for some of its product development, but largely has to take its technology out of state for federal testing and permitting because Michigan doesn’t have the requisite testing facilities.
“It has to be something that the state drives, supports and takes ownership for,” McClearen said of commercial drone infrastructure in Michigan. “It’s not an easy thing to do and it takes a long, long time.”
In March, Michigan Medicine said it would partner with the drone company Zipline to home-deliver prescriptions to “hundreds of thousands of patients” next year. The company would use new technology that allows a drone to drop the package down on a tether, potentially to someone’s front door, rather than having the drone land, which requires more clearance space.
The company likely will have to apply for waivers from the FAA to participate in the pilot program with Michigan Medicine because Michigan does not yet have approvals for beyond visual line of sight corridors.
Battle Creek eyes ground floor
About $7 million of the $17 million in targeted commercial drone grants in the budget will go to Battle Creek Unlimited, the city’s economic development arm currently jonesing for a commercial drone park at the Battle Creek Executive Airport.
Battle Creek Unlimited expects to use the funds to develop beyond visible line of sight infrastructure — including a low-altitude radar system — on about 200 acres of developable land at the airport.
“It’s an emerging industry that has high paying jobs, but Michigan has got to develop the ecosystem,” said Joe Sobieralski, president and CEO for Battle Creek Unlimited. “Battle Creek is just one part of that.”
Sobieralski argued the low-traffic airport that currently hosts Western Michigan University’s flight school, airplane repair company Duncan Aviation and manufacturer Waco Aircraft is an ideal spot to test the concept of a drone park. The nearby Battle Creek Air National Guard Base also runs drone tests out of its facility.
Rep. Jim Haadsma, the Battle Creek Democrat who secured the grant, said he’d heard talk of plans for a potential drone park for the airport for years and felt the airport was well-positioned for a pilot program.
“This is not about small, hobby remote control drones flown in county park facilities,” Haadsma said. “This is about commercial possibilities. … The opportunity to become a key player in this enterprise is now.”
The funding comes roughly four years after Battle Creek Unlimited was given a $150,000 state grant for a feasibility study reviewing the potential for a drone park at the airport.
Battle Creek Unlimited declined to release a copy of the full report, which was paid for with taxpayer money and used to barter for another $7 million from the state Legislature. The group said the report contained information that could be used by competitors.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp., which also has a copy, did not immediately provide it to The News.
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