To test and demonstrate its unmanned aerial vehicles, Avid Aerospace will drive from York County to Blacksburg, a farm in Gloucester or a facility in Chesterfield. Though sometimes they use the Fame All-Stars Cheerleading Team’s gym a couple doors down.
None of those scenarios are ideal for testing or showing a UAV.
Paul Gelhausen, Avid’s co-founder and chief technical officer, is hoping he’ll have a better option as the result of a regional effort to get a state grant for an unmanned systems facility in York County.
Gelhausen thinks that with growing demand, new ideas and technological advances, the unmanned systems industry is primed for expansion — the main thing holding Avid and other businesses in Hampton Roads back is a place to test and demonstrate their products.
Jim Noel, director of the York County Economic Development Authority, has his eyes on a 192-acre fuel farm owned by the state that was once used as a storage facility during fuel shortages. The land, off Penniman Road and southwest of the Naval Supply Center, is unused and is an approved Federal Aviation Administration fly zone.
Unmanned systems development has been identified as an emerging industry by Go Virginia, an initiative to create higher paying jobs in the state. The average salary in the industry is $86,480, and Noel said there is opportunity to help the local industry grow.
Noel, with the endorsement of Peninsula localities and the Hampton Roads Planning District Committee, is working on a grant proposal seeking $2.5 million from Go Virginia to support conversion of the fuel farm into a drone testing facility. About $500,000 would be for planning and infrastructure development and $2 million for construction in the fly zone and preliminary development for businesses.
The 192-acre fly zone is bordered by 241 acres that could be used as an industrial park with flex space for the unmanned systems businesses. Sixty-five of the 241 acres would be purchased by the participating localities as the grant match in the Go Virginia program. The remaining land is part of a second phase of development that would be separate from the grant. Noel said federal agencies and colleges would also have access to the facility as part of a public-private partnership.
The primary focus is for businesses, including air, ground and water vehicles, but a drone park for hobbyists is also part of the proposal to tap into the recreational and tourism niche.
“It’s an exciting proposal that bubbled up from the industry,” Noel said.
In addition to helping with sales of existing products, Gelhausen said a test facility would be a boon for development of new products. With the current testing options, they don’t have as many chances as they’d like to fly their work while it’s in development, having to invest time and money to travel to facilities where they can fly.
A testing facility a few miles from their office in the Newsome Place Industrial Park offers the chance for greater technical advances.
The industry goes far beyond the four-rotor models that were the hot Christmas gift last year. Avid produces duct fan models that have a rotor confined in the main body of the UAV. The design is more efficient, safer and less susceptible to damage, according to Gelhausen. Some are tethered to a battery pack to stay in the air far longer than other UAVs.
Gelhausen first contracted with the Army more than a decade ago and says the uses for UAVs keep growing, expanding into areas like inspection and maintenance. In dangerous situations, a drone can be used to check for hazardous gases and go where it wouldn’t be safe for a person. One of Gelhausen’s models was the first to fly into Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 nuclear accident.
“There are always new ideas,” he said.
Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692. Follow him on Twitter @jdauzreyes.