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An RQ-7 Shadow Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) from Bravo Company 76th Brigade Special Troops Battalion sits near it's launcher during a pre-flight inspection at Himsel Army Airfield at Camp Atterbury. The RQ-7 Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers and is used for surveillance by the US military. Private corporations and state government agencies are looking toward UAVs to perform a multitude of tasks from police applications to bridge inspections and high tension power line inspections. Mike Wolanin / Daily Journal
An RQ-7 Shadow Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) from Bravo Company 76th Brigade Special Troops Battalion sits near a runway at Himsel Army Airfield located at Camp Atterbury prior to a pre-flight inspection. Private corporations and state government agencies are looking toward UAVs to perform a multitude of tasks from police applications to bridge inspections and high tension power line inspections. Mike Wolanin / Daily Journal
A local military post vying to become a national test site for unmanned aircraft, known as drones, was not selected as one of six locations announced Monday.
That decision means the area near Camp Atterbury likely won’t get the large economic boost predicted for the federal test sites. But drone testing and training activity are still expected to increase substantially in coming years at the military facility in southern Johnson County, Camp Atterbury airspace manager Lt. Col. Matt Sweeney said.
Camp Atterbury had applied as part of a joint venture between Indiana and Ohio to become one of six sites used by the Federal Aviation Administration to study drone technology and how unmanned aircraft can be safely implemented into the skies with other planes and helicopters.
Increased drone testing is one method Camp Atterbury officials have identified to maintain and attract activity and employment at the post now that the mission to train and mobilize soldiers to serve in overseas conflicts has ended.
What could have been?
A study estimated that Camp Atterbury could have attracted about 1,000 new jobs and more than $200 million in investments from drone-related companies that likely would locate near the base.
Camp Atterbury was one of 25 applicants from 24 states being considered during the 10-month selection period. The FAA selected sites in Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia and New York. The federal agency considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk as part of the criteria in selecting sites, according to a new release.
Drone testing already occurs at Camp Atterbury daily since the military post near Edinburgh has restricted airspace. Camp Atterbury hosts both military and commercial drone testing, and companies can pay for access to an area to carry out flight tests. That activity will continue despite not being selected as a federal test site, and Sweeney anticipates drone use will continue to increase.
Drones currently are allowed to fly only in areas with restricted airspace, such as Camp Atterbury, or areas that have been specifically approved by the FAA for drone flights, such as Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Jennings County.
Training possibilities still exist
Soldiers who used drones in Afghanistan or Iraq will still need places to train, and Camp Atterbury is a good option for those military programs, Sweeney said. Since drones also can fly at Muscatatuck, pilots get a chance to train in a realistic urban environment, which is a bonus since drones currently aren’t allowed to fly around occupied areas, he said.
“That is probably unique as far as urban centers go for the density, the complexity and the ability to fly unmanned aircraft. I don’t anticipate a lessening of interest in those that want to come to our state to train and evaluate equipment,” Sweeney said.
One advantage to not being selected is that Camp Atterbury can continue to allow drone testing but won’t be required to collect additional data. Test sites will be required to collect and report information about testing to the FAA to help the federal agency form new policies on safety and operation, Sweeney said.
“All along there was in the back of minds of how will we accommodate this data collection. If you’re not having to spend 20 percent of your time collecting data, that time can be redirected at attracting new business,” Sweeney said.
Since none of the tests sites selected was in the Midwest, Sweeney also anticipates that the Indiana-Ohio partnership will continue to promote Camp Atterbury as a potential test site for businesses that might not want to locate in Alaska or North Dakota.
Bringing in new military or commercial drone programs is one focus of Camp Atterbury going forward since overseas wars have ended and the base no longer is mobilizing soldiers.
Camp Atterbury previously trained as many as 20,000 soldiers per year for overseas missions, but the base welcomed home its last unit this year. Camp Atterbury now is shifting its focus to ongoing training exercises such as the Vibrant Response disaster relief scenario or new programs focusing on drones and cyberdefense. More than $500 million in improvements have been made to the base since 2001, when activity ramped up following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In the future, drones could be used in multiple applications such as a farmer getting a bird’s-eye view of crop fields or by firefighters using camera drones to fly over wildfires.
Federal guidelines allowing drone flights in public airspace could be formed as soon as 2015, although
the process may take longer. The first of the six test sites could be ready to open within 180 days, and the sites will be operational through February 2017.
Sites such as the University of Alaska were selected because the state could offer testing in seven different climate zones, while Griffiss International Airport in New York will allow research on how to implement drones into high-traffic airspace in the Northeast, the news release said.
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