K.I. SAWYER - Local officials hope that if the Michigan Advanced Aerial System Consortium is successful in its bid to become the prime U.S. test center and industry cluster for drones, some of the projects and development of that technology could take place at Sawyer International Airport.
The consortium, which was launched last month downstate, has elected officials, government agencies, academia and industry focused on its goal.
In February, the Federal Aviation Administration put out a request for proposals which has entities across the country competing for six drone test site designations, with those designations to be named by Dec. 31.
An unmanned aerial vehicle or drone is flown without the need for a human pilot on board the aircraft. The vehicle is operated from a distance and can be used for a variety of military, public safety, commercial or other uses. (Michigan Advanced Aerial System Consortium photo)
Proposed drone test center
According to this Michigan Advanced Aerial System Consortium graphic the proposed test center is located “within an airspace complex in excess of 20,000 square miles, 30 percent of which is over fresh water. The area is characterized by a low-density population, with wide, uninhabited expanses” making it ideal for drone research, testing and development activities. (Michigan Advanced Aerial System Consortium image)
The beginnings of the Michigan drone test site initiative began in 2011 when Explorer Solutions - a Canadian aviation and aerospace consulting firm which helped create the Upper Michigan Green Aviation Coalition - began working with Alpena County on developing a niche, similar to work the firm had done in the U.P. at the Sawyer and Houghton and Delta County airports.
"They started going through that same process of looking at the assets and cross-referencing that with where the industry was headed," said Vikki Kulju, executive director of Telkite Enterprises at Sawyer, which serves as the management entity for the green aviation coalition. "They came up with this unmanned aerial vehicle test center type concept."
Kulju told the Marquette County Board in a presentation Tuesday that coincidentally or fortunately for Alpena County, the FAA then released it proposals request for the drone test sites in February.
Alpena County then approached state officials asking for financial backing as they pursued the FAA designation. The state was also being approached by other communities.
"And so the state said, 'We don't want to pick one jurisdiction and we don't want to have multiple proposals going forward from the state of Michigan, we want to have one proposal,'" Kulju said. "So they had a meeting where they brought in pretty much everyone involved in aviation from across the state of Michigan to talk about how we should go forward. The end result of that was the creation of this board, this Michigan Advanced Aerial Systems Consortium. The board then was charged with coming up with how the state should go forward."
The board chairman is Rick Carlson of the Michigan Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division. Kulju is secretary representing the U.P. via the green aviation coalition.
Other officials on the 14-member panel include representatives from the Michigan Tech Research Institute, Alpena County, Western Michigan University, the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, the Michigan Defense Center and GE Aviation.
Kulju said one of the reasons this is an important industry is the U.S. Department of Defense budget shows $6 billion to be expended on unmanned aerial systems in the air category alone. Additional categories were land and sea.
Each applicant for the test site designations must file separate reports, which will be scored, outlining a safety plan, experience, risk mitigation, existing ground infrastructure, airspace design, economic impact assessment and a privacy plan.
In June, 50 initial applicants from 36 states were narrowed down to 25 applications from two dozen states, including Michigan's proposal.
There are several features the consortium is marketing.
Kulju showed the county board an airspace map for the proposed test center with a section shaded blue over parts of the eastern U.P. and the northern Lower Peninsula, including the Antrim and Yuba airports in the northwest and Grayling and Alpena airports in the central and western Lower Peninsula.
The Sawyer, Battle Creek and Detroit airports were also depicted.
"The initial area is this highlighted area," Kulju said. "The reason that shape was selected was based on a whole bunch of criteria, and the criteria was, when looking at our response to the RFP, what would give Michigan the best chance to be designated a test site."
Kulju said Alpena - largely because of the military presence there - "is very far along in this whole UAV sector."
"They also possess a certain radar that is very rare and this radar can detect - like if a mosquito flies by it can detect that - and that will give us a very strong advantage against some of these other companies as we move forward," Kulju said. "Additionally, the proximity to Canada allows us to do some international-type testing that other areas say in the central part of the United States wouldn't be able to do."
Kulju said the diverse climate, mix of metropolitan and rural areas and large bodies of water are also beneficial.
"We just have a lot of what the RFP is calling for," Kulju said. "They've developed a whole slew of marketing materials around that."
The consortium is currently developing innovation, human resource, community advisory, supply chain, marketing, strategic planning and other committees and is soliciting input.
"We're reaching out to anyone within our region that wants to participate on these committees that bring some sort of level of expertise in either that particular field or in UAV use," Kulju said.
Local industries were suggested as potential users and input providers.
"For example, we would love to have a representative for Cliffs (Natural Resources) because UAVs, for example, could be utilized sometime in the future as doing security, doing oversight, you know you can fly these over their mine pits and check on the status of what's going on and it can be very, a beneficial potential market niche," Kulju said.
Kulju said forestry representatives with ideas on how drones could be used in the timber industry were also being sought.
"With the public service as far as police and protection and other security measures, emergency management services, there's another area that UAVs could potentially become commonplace," Kulju said. "So there's lots of different areas."
Commissioner Steven Pence asked, "What about spying on our citizens? I don't ask that sarcastically, not in the first instance, with so much going on."
Kulju said one of the reasons the government is trying to establish FAA test centers is so that they can do the testing required to develop an industry around it.
"Right now, you can buy any kind of a UAV in a hobby way and start flying it around. You can attach a camera to it," Kulju said. "There is laws against it but nobody's really enforcing them. So this is hopefully taking us a step to resolving those issues and addressing those issues in a more comprehensive way."
Kulju said states with laws restricting use of drones will be scored lower on their proposals by the FAA.
"Right now, the state of Michigan, their legislation is being developed so we're not falling either way. So to whatever interest you have in getting involved in the legislation that's still an area I think that you could have input into," Kulju told the board. "I'd like to see it (drone use) be supported very liberally, but that's from an economic development standpoint."
Kulju said Telkite's work with the green aviation coalition will cross over with the efforts of the consortium.
"Hopefully, it will all lead back to projects and development at Sawyer International Airport," she said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.