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Could Cincinnati become Drone Town USA?

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-08 07:03:20-05

CINCINNATI -- If you want to discover the most disruptive use of technology around Cincinnati, head out of town to the surrounding countryside and look to the skies above places like Wilmington Air Park or any of the Boy Scout camps circling the city. That’s where countless drones are being tested with the goal of igniting consumer excitement and, perhaps, new business opportunities. 

“The arrival of drones in our everyday lives is inevitable,” says Bret Givens, local entrepreneur and founder of a Southwestern Ohio drone user group. “What’s exciting is the bottom-up dynamic of the growing drone ecosystem. Enthusiasts with their Arduino kits are what’s driving new businesses and public acceptance.”

While Google continues to test mail drones in the Australian outback, it’s easy to imagine Kroger using drones for its Clicklist curbside delivery of online grocery orders.

And while Amazon tests Prime Air drone service in rural England, it’s impossible not to look at its Northern Kentucky fulfillment center as a future drone hub.

Imagine drones that fly in swarms like starlings to conserve energy and deliver mail, bounce Wi-Fi signals and monitor traffic and weather. 

As Givens navigates his consumer drones over a South Lebanon pasture, he tells us that Greater Cincinnati’s best chance at a business home run for 2016 and beyond will take place far from the tech startup offices located throughout Over-the-Rhine or the Downtown-based venture capital firms that support them. 

With these aerial robots already zipping over Wilmington Air Park, it’s only a matter of time until we see them above Cincinnati streets delivering packages, providing digital services and aiding law enforcement. Agriculture, law enforcement, the U.S. military and delivery may be the first waves of industries showcasing how drones will end up playing a leadership role in Cincinnati’s innovation ecosystem.

The possibilities are seemingly endless.

There are the drones from major companies operating in the Tri-State, like GE or Amazon.

Then, there are the drones coming out of entrepreneur communities like The Collider Project — hacker-driven drones that are helping transform Cincinnati into a tech hub around intelligence software, advanced sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT).

“Imagine drones streaking above Interstate 75 on their way from one delivery drop-off to another,” says Dave Caraway, veteran Southwestern Ohio entrepreneur and founder of software development company FogMine. “I think this can happen sooner than many people think. After all, you can buy a drone on Amazon for less than $500 and add a video camera for a modest total of $1,300.”

If Greater Cincinnati is to play a leadership role in America’s New Maker Era, says Candace Dalmagne-Rouge, former director of the Air Force Research Lab Small Business Hub (AFRL) and current program manager at the product design incubator, Ascend Innovations, drones will be some of the tech hardware that separates us from other Midwest cities. 

More important, Dalmagne-Rouge is convinced that we’re not talking decades from now. Dalmagne-Rouge believes significant drone advances are happening now. 

Maybe your packages won’t be air-lifted by drone to your doorstep just yet, but the pieces are falling into place to make Greater Cincinnati a prime test market for other drone-related services. 

Interstate 75 continues to be the main artery connecting many of Cincinnati’s tech companies, medical and academic institutions and government-funded research labs with other cities throughout the Silicon Midwest. It’s also a key corridor for drones.

Givens quickly adds one more thing to the drone chatter. Greater Cincinnati may end up playing a significant role in establishing drone policy thanks to the region’s deep history of private business and government collaborations. 

In a town known for design thinking and branding, business leaders may determine how we re-think and re-design the roles drones play in everyday lives, and the laws and regulations needed to keep people and properties safe. More important, Cincinnati businesses may help shift consumer behavior and stop seeing drones as silent weapons and re-ignite them as a consumer service.

Dalmagne-Rouge and her team at Ascend Innovations agree that Cincinnati is experiencing a New Maker Era, especially around Med Tech hardware. 

Ohio boasts some 15,600 manufacturing businesses, many positioned to play a role in the drone supply chain. 

Thanks to industry leaders in aerospace, automotive and global delivery that call Greater Cincinnati home, the Queen City may soon transform from a branding hub into Drone Town USA.

“Ohio is the birthplace of aviation,” Dalmagne-Rouge adds. “Our state has a deep history of aerospace innovation and remains home to many key suppliers, including GE Aviation.”

Recently, after an Unmanned Aerial Systems Conference, state committee leaders remained focused on attracting new business to the state that will complement the existing innovation infrastructures already in Ohio.

They’re excited by a study from the Teal Group forecasting a combined military and commercial drone market of $89 billion over the next 10 years.

These same leaders also look for growth from existing drone companies like Event 38 Unmanned Systems, which designs and manufactures drones for use in construction, mining, agriculture and environmental conservation.

Perhaps the next steps involve the building of micro factories to support the providers of open-source innovation to drone software and hardware. 

Imagine a test center for unmanned aircraft similar to one operated by a nonprofit group in Alberta, Canada. Such a center could be a space where large corporations, drone hackers and enthusiasts could co-create and develop the next drone breakthrough.

Think about drones repairing natural gas pipelines deep in Southeastern Ohio forests; monitoring Ohio’s wildlife, and aiding rescue teams for law enforcement.

British police have observation drones, and leaders at companies like Event 38 believe it’s a matter of when, not if, the FAA allows widespread commercial use of drones.

After all, Martha Stewart has written a piece for Time Magazine titled “Why I Love My Drone.”