Ohio University is helping Appalachian Ohio prepare for a future where people, cargo and emergency medical services are transported by autonomous drone-like aircraft.
Advanced air mobility, or AAM, is an emerging form of transportation that can take many forms, from small drones delivering packages to an aircraft resembling an electric helicopter without the need for a pilot. The new technology costs less to maintain, is more accessible and quieter than traditional forms of aircraft.
OU’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to promote the use of AAM, according to a university news release.
According to the release, the university will work in collaboration with FlyOhio, an initiative under the Ohio department of transportation’s DriveOhio, to look into AAM opportunities in the region.
AAM can be used for business, transportation, medical and logistical needs. Though AAM has a wide range of use, each aircraft has two traits in common— they are all electrically powered and piloted remotely or fully autonomously.
FlyOhio has identified seven use cases for this kind of technology that OU and partners are exploring capabilities and demand for.
Those use cases include on-demand air taxi service, which is designed to transport people inside a city, regional air mobility to transport people between cities in a 50-75 mile radius, airport shuttles from city centers and suburban areas, emergency medical services and ambulance, corporate business aviation, cargo and freight delivery and tourism including cheaper and quieter air tours.
The purpose of the grant OU received is to anticipate what might be capable with AAM and what of those seven use cases the Appalachian region wants to prioritize, said Brent Lane, an executive in residence at OU’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service who focuses on economic development and is part of the team promoting AAM.
Lane said OU doesn't know how the technology or the business behind it will shake out yet, so educating people in Southeast Ohio on AAM and gauging public opinion is very important at this stage.
“It is possible that it will remain sort of a specialized form of aviation,” Lane said. “Maybe some package delivery, medical, maybe a little arial tourism stuff, or it could start to replace essentially the way these smaller aircraft are used in general, by companies, by individuals flying out of smaller airports. So it may actually displace a lot of existing aviation or it could become a simply an alternative to your car.”
Another way the teams are reaching out to communities is by working with students, Rich Granger, managing director of workforce at DriveOhio, said.
Granger said DriveOhio is working with students pre-k to PhD level to prepare the upcoming workforce. He said some ways DriveOhio is working with students is by helping find them internships, capstone projects, providing certificates and their vertiport challenge where college students compete to make an airport for AAM aircraft that will take off vertically.
Granger said OU students competed in the vertaport design challenge in 2021, and OU students will have another opportunity to compete in one later this spring.
Granger said whenever he mentions drones student’s ears perk up and there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the technology. He has also been very impressed by their presentations.
“There have been a few students that we've heard pitch to us that I'm practically ready to offer them an internship on the spot,” Granger said. “They're just so sharp and focused.”
Granger said AAM is already being used in Ohio. The example Granger gave was a pilot program, which lasted around a year, where Kroger delivered packages with drones from a company called Drone Express, a growing company based out of Dayton that used equipment from DriveOhio and FlyOhio in Springfield.
“In economic development, which I've done in my career, we're almost always trying to overcome isolation and distance in rural economies and rural communities,” Lane said. “A lot of disadvantages come from distance and isolation … This is one of the instances of a transportation technology that will address isolation and distance and that makes it a remarkable opportunity.”