WILMINGTON, Ohio - By 2014, some residents in Southwest Ohio could look up into the sky to see small, unmanned drones flying overhead.
They'll come if the Federal Aviation Administration grants Ohio the right to test them. The FAA is reviewing 50 proposals from 37 states vying to win one of six test areas to be announced at the end of this year.
All are hoping to cash in on billions of dollars in aerospace investment and the burgeoning commercial market for unmanned aircraft.
What the FAA calls Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) range in size from a hummingbird to a 7-10 foot wingspan and beyond. Depending on their size, fixed-wing UAVs are either hand-launched like a football or off a runaway like traditional aircraft.
Other UAV's are helicopter-style aircraft with four blades.
Last year Congress passed two pieces of legislation directing the FAA to create the test sites in order to integrate drones into our airspace by September 2015.
"The FAA wants to be assured that if there are unmanned or remotely piloted vehicles up in the air that they can react safely with other manned vehicles that are in the national airspace," said Kevin Carver, Director of the Clinton County Port Authority.
Carver and Wilmington Mayor Randy Riley say the Wilmington Air Park, which is a component of Ohio's proposal, is the perfect facility to test UVA's.
"This Air Park is an asset to all of southwest Ohio when it comes to aviation and research and development," said Riley.
Five years after DHL's 2008 pullout, both men are doing what they can to attract business back to the Air Park.
"If we can get UAVs here for testing and then research and development, I think that's marvelous," said Riley. "Because that's commerce, that's business. That brings people to Wilmington and Clinton County."
Some UAVs have already been tested at the Air Park. The United States Air Force Research Lab, headquartered at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, possesses a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA to fly certain UAVs on a limited basis.
The Lab is working on "sense and avoid" technology designed to prevent mid-air collisions and has flown test flights at the Air Park.
Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport is also a part of Ohio's proposal. The Research Lab and Sinclair Community College are currently testing UAVs there.
UAV's are also being made there. Frank Beafore, Executive Director of Select Tech Geospatial, a defense contractor, is producing the aircraft.
"It's like I've died and gone to heaven," said Beafore, who used to fly model airplanes when he was a kid.
A model aircraft or RC (radio-controlled) flyer is not a UAV, according to the FAA. A UAV is used for commercial or a civil function and not just recreation.
Beafore designs and flies both fixed-wing and helicopter-style UAVs. Beafore calls the latter "quadcopters" or VTAL's, for Vertical Takeoff and Landing.
Beafore said the real testing being done is inside the aircraft.
"It's a combination of three things: the auto pilot, which came out of cellphone technology; the software itself to tell the airplane where to go, and the sensors," said Beafore.
Beafore said the commercial and civil use of UAVs for agriculture, weather prediction and traffic monitoring are merely a few examples where UAVs will save money and reduce risk to pilots.
If Ohio wins a test area, the total economic impact could reach $264 million per year by 2025, according to the Dayton Development Coalition, which put together Ohio's proposal to the FAA.
Additionally, the DDC foresees a total employment impact of more than 2,700 jobs.
When the lid comes off in 2015, organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog in Washington, D.C., insist that privacy protections be in place. For one thing, they don't want law enforcement flying a drone over a neighborhood for hours and using it as a dragnet.
"The FAA in choosing the test sites have now decided that they need to look at the privacy issue, which is something EPIC pushed for very early on," said Amie Stepanovich, Director of the Domestic Surveillance Project for EPIC.
The FAA proposal says in part:
"The site operator and its team members are required to operate in accordance with Federal, State and other laws regarding the protection of an individual's right to privacy."
The FAA additionally states:
"The privacy requirements the FAA has proposed are specifically designed for the operation of the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) test sites. They are not intended to pre-determine the long-term policy and regulatory framework under which commercial UAS's would operate."
"It's a start, but it's not necessarily where we want to see them end up because suggestions aren't going to protect rights. We need mandates," said Stepanovich.
Initially, few people would see UAVs during testing. However, when drones are flown for extended periods of time from one airport to another, more and more people would start seeing them.
Additionally, Ohio and Indiana have large military air space where drones would be flown. Ohio's Military Operated Airspace is over the Hillsboro area. It is where the National Guard used to fly F-16s.
To be sure, more UAVs or drones are coming, and Wilmington's mayor says that it is something that the public needs to accept.
"It's hard to tell people that this is something that's already happening and that you're going to have to get used to it, but it's already happening. People just need to become acclimated to the fact," said Riley.
See the FAA fact sheet on UAV testing at http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14153
Read more about unmanned aircraft at http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/