Ohio agencies request airspace use for drones

ODOT, colleges among petitioners to FAA


COLUMBUS — Even as Congress raises questions about the military application of unmanned drones and the targeting of U.S. citizens, the Federal Aviation Administration is opening airspace to more civilian use of the technology.

In Ohio, the Department of Transportation, Medina County sheriff, Ohio University in Athens, Sinclair Community College in Dayton, and Lorain County Community College have all either won FAA authorization or are seeking it.

So have the University of Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College.

The lengthy list of past and new applicants was obtained from the FAA via a records request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit defender of civil liberties.

The FAA confirmed Tuesday that it made the list available to the group, but it doesn’t expect to publicly release it until Thursday.

Medina County Sheriff Tom Miller said he understands the concerns the public may have.

“I don’t want something flying over my head while I’m having a barbecue, but if my grandson or granddaughter goes missing, I want every technology available to find them as quickly as we can,” he said. “I think the application is for the three or four kids or Alzheimer’s patients who go missing.”

The sheriff’s office has been working with a local company, Vista UAS LLC, that is developing the technology.

The office is training two officers to serve as virtual pilots for the small, remote-controlled, model helicopter-like device equipped with a zoom camera and infrared imager. It’s unarmed and far from the airplane-like drones the United States has used for strategic military targets.

A recently passed bill requires the FAA to develop rules to expand civilian-operated, unmanned drone access to domestic airspace by September, 2015.

ODOT’s roughly $15,000 Styrofoam craft looks nothing like Medina’s helicopter.

Resembling a boomerang or a bat, it has a wing span of about 2½ feet and weighs about a pound. It has a point-and-shoot camera underneath it that aims straight down.

ODOT has received FAA approval to fly it for aerial topographical imaging associated with construction projects, something the department does now using a piloted aircraft. The battery-operated craft would fly about 200 feet above ground.

“We will pay an employee an hourly wage to operate a model as opposed to fueling up a manned airplane to fly 10,000 feet in the air,” ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner said.

The American Civil Liberties Union believes that clear regulations about the use of drones should be adopted and court warrants should be obtained before they can be used for surveillance.

“We’re worried about this being a slippery slope to drones looking into everything,” said Steve Miller, chairman of the Northwest Ohio ACLU. “The FAA is predicting 30,000 drones by the end of the decade.”

Sinclair Community College has FAA approval for restricted airspace over Springfield-Beckley Airport to test its unmanned SPEAR in conjunction with manufacturer Co-Operative Engineering Services, Inc.

“We believe it will be a multi-billion-dollar industry in coming years, and multi-billion-dollar industries require a trained work force,” Sinclair spokesman Adam Murka said.

Ohio University’s Avionics Engineering Center has FAA airspace authority as part of its research to ensure that an unmanned aircraft can sense and avoid other aircraft.

“We are trying to make the technology safer for a lot of civilian applications that are overlooked by the general public,” center spokesman Colleen Carow said. “They can be used to assess disaster sites, fly in areas that are unsafe or impossible for humans to reach such as a plane crash in the mountains, and monitor crops….”

Lorain County Community College has incorporated the technology into its aerospace program with students building and testing their own rockets and unmanned aerial crafts. So far test flights have been limited to inside the school’s fieldhouse, but it has asked for FAA airspace authorization.

“Our interest right now is on investigative things — infrastructure, thermal checks on buildings to check heat loss, precision agriculture to identify different croplands that are producing more than others,” professor Marlin Linger said.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.