A slingshot-like launcher hurls a small plane toward the bright blue sky, and the pilot — who’s hunched over a flickering screen in the back of a truck — guides it over Camp Atterbury as though he were playing a video game.
The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, soars over the treetops at the southern Johnson County military installation, recording the terrain below with a camera mounted on its belly.
The sight could become more common at Camp Atterbury, which is a key piece in a joint bid by Indiana and Ohio to become a center for drone testing. They hope to become one of six testing sites where the Federal Aviation Administration determines how drones can be flown safely over the United States.
Military leaders envision drone testing as a big part of Camp Atterbury’s future when it’s no longer sending troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a glance
Indiana and Ohio are making a joint bid to become a federal drone testing site, and much of the testing would be done in restricted airspace at Camp Atterbury.
Here’s a look:
What: The Federal Aviation Administration will pick six sites across the country to test how drones can be flown safely over U.S. airspace.
Why: Once the province of the military, drones are expected to become integrated into civilian life. For instance, they could be used by farmers to dust crops, by utility companies to inspect power lines and by homeland security to survey flooding from above.
Testing: The tests would help the FAA set rules that would ensure that drones could be flown safely, without crashing into planes or helicopters.
Impact: Thousands of people would pass through Camp Atterbury each year for the testing and spend money at local businesses; drone developers and makers also could cluster in the area, resulting in jobs and investment.
Bid: Camp Atterbury has spent $1 million to build another runway just for drones and erect a 7,000-square-foot building where they could be stored.
The post has invested about $1 million in a new runway and storage and maintenance building just for drones, Maj. Lisa Kopczynski said.
If designated a test site, the post would lure thousands of visitors a year, who would stay at local hotels and eat at area restaurants. A NASA unmanned aerial vehicle competition, for instance, is expected to bring up to 8,000 visitors to Camp Atterbury next year.
The testing also potentially would attract drone developers or manufacturers to the area. Drone testing could create more than 1,000 jobs and result in more than $200 million in economic development in Indiana by 2017, according to a study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.
The economic impact would be greatest while intensive testing would be done over the next five to seven years, said Richard E. Baker, a professor of aviation at Indiana State University’s new unmanned aerial systems department, which helped orchestrate the state’s bid. But Camp Atterbury and surrounding communities would continue to benefit over the long term because drone manufacturers would have to test every new make and model in restricted airspace at one of the six testing sites.
‘A fairly big deal’
Over the past decade, the military has used drones in Iraq and Afghanistan to gather intelligence and attack enemies with missile strikes. The unmanned aerial devices have come under some criticism for being used to kill individual terrorists, for causing collateral damage and for being a potential threat to privacy.
Drones, however, are expected to be used more commonly outside the military and create a multibillion-dollar industry, said Lt. Col. Matt Sweeney, who manages Camp Atterbury’s airspace.
“It’s a fairly big deal,” he said.
Farmers could use drones to dust crops and check the health of soil, Sweeney said. Power and phone companies could send drones out to see if storms damaged overhead utility lines. Engineers could inspect bridges or tall buildings while sitting at a video console.
Police, firefighters and other emergency responders also could employ the drones, such as if there’s a chemical spill at a plant and it’s too risky for people to enter, Sweeney said. The remotely piloted planes could be deployed to scope out natural disasters, keep an eye on traffic or patrol the borders.
Over the next decade, drones are expected to become a $90 billion business, Baker said. The area has the opportunity to become a hub for the burgeoning industry and could attract companies that would make sensors and other key components of the drones.
“It’s more than just the vehicles,” he said. “They have to make other things, such as sensors and computer software. They’d have to do training and education.”
Drones would be used by farmers mainly to fight pests, detect infestations and check the level of nutrients in the soil, and by homeland security officials who could send them to survey floods and wildfires, Baker said. For example, they could identify which roads are open and passable and do so without putting any first responders at risk.
‘Emphasis is on safety’
Residents may have concerns about how the drones could be used for surveillance, especially in light of recent revelations that the federal government is monitoring the phone records and Internet usage of its citizens, said Indiana University law professor David Fidler, an expert on cybersecurity.
“We should make sure in examining the new technology that law enforcement keeps a firm eye on the principle of civil liberties and doesn’t get carried away,” he said. “They should maintain a firm stand on those principles that define the American way of life. But this isn’t an issue with two polar positions. Drones can be deployed in useful ways without being abused by the government.”
State and local governments across the country have considered imposing restrictions on drone surveillance to protect people’s privacy, Fidler said.
“New types of parameters would have to be set that law enforcement would have to comply with,” he said. “The existing set of rules doesn’t always keep up with technology, so the question become how do we begin to reinterpret those parameters.”
As many as 10,000 commercial drones could take to the skies over the decade, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates.
But before that can happen, the FAA must set rules that would govern how drones share the airspace with planes and helicopters. The federal agency wants to ensure that drones won’t crash into planes or people’s backyards, Baker said.
“The whole emphasis is on safety and what kind of sensors and cameras you need to prevent collisions,” he said.
They’ll figure out those regulations while testing drones at six sites across the country.
Thirty-seven states are competing for those six slots, largely because the testing is expected to be an economic bonanza. The thought is that companies that develop or make drones would want to cluster around the testing sites, bringing jobs and investment, Johnson County Development Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer Cheryl Morphew said.
“The hope going forward is that these companies, whether relocating or starting up for the first time, will want to be right outside the wire, as they say in the military,” Morphew said. “We have an opportunity and the skilled workforce needed to support that growth from a regional standpoint.”
The testing itself would have an economic impact because it would bring in military personnel, civilian contractors and federal officials, Sweeney said. They’d often stay at hotels in Edinburgh, eat at local restaurants and shop at area stores.
Partnering with Ohio
Camp Atterbury already conducts drone training. This month, an Indiana National Guard unit flew Shadow surveillance drones over the post’s forests and rolling terrain as part of a training mission.
The post has restricted airspace, which allows drones to fly freely, and has been building its infrastructure, Kopczynski said. The post just built a new runway and a 7,000-square-foot building where drones can be stored during testing.
Military officials hope the runway will help strengthen the state’s bid to become a drone testing site.
Indiana’s entire congressional delegation, including members of both parties, has been lobbying to bring drone testing to Camp Atterbury.
“The Ohio/Indiana proposal projects that key research and development activities associated with a test site will attract additional suppliers and manufacturers, contributing to significant economic development and job creation not only in Ohio and Indiana but throughout the Midwest,” they wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Indiana has been teaming up with Ohio on the bid. The Buckeye state doesn’t have any restricted air space for drone testing, which would mostly be done in Indiana at Camp Atterbury, the Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations in Jennings County and the Jefferson Proving Ground north of Madison.
Ohio does have Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is home to a major drone research center, Sweeney said. Researchers at Wright-Patterson already have designed micro-drones that include the Nighthawk and the Black Dart.
The FAA is expected to announce the six testing sites by the end of the year, Sweeney said.