Northwest Michigan cornering the drone market

Drones. Just the word makes some people uneasy. But here in Michigan, there's a bright future and an economic breath of fresh air being tied to those unmanned vehicles. 
Drones do not exactly bring to mind positive thoughts or connotations, to put it lightly. Many Americans (and those our government find themselves in conflict with) see drones as deadly weapons used to effectively kill terrorist targets, or on the other side of the coin, bring terror to defenseless and often innocent civilians.
 
However, there are Michiganders, particularly those in the northwest, who see an opportunity in drones. Luckily this opportunity has nothing to do with the controversial military use. Rather, they see economic opportunity by bringing drones into the commercial market. They see employment opportunities and practices that have the ability to generally better the lives of all Michiganders.
 
Listen to the vision of drones in Michigan, it's hard not to buy into what they're selling.
 
Moving Forward
 
Despite a recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision not to support a drone test site in northern Michigan, the new industry is prepared to move forward.
 
Aaron Cook, Director of Aviation at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), and Aaron Johnson, Defense Industry Business Manager at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) in working within their respective fields to bolster the fledging industry.
 
At NMC, their Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) operator training program recently completed their fourth year of student training. Though operators can currently find jobs with defense contactors, folks like Cook and Johnson believed the civilian job market will dwarf the military sector once the FAA opens up American airspace to commercial drone operations. Weather forecasting, disaster response, agriculture, mineral exploration, photography, and rescue operations are just a selection of opportunities in commercial uses of UAS promoted by the NMC program.
 
"UAS are going to play a significant role in the industry for years to come and will influence the work of pilots," says Cook. "Currently about 70 percent of the interest in the Aviation program is in the UAS courses."
 
Meanwhile, Johnson and his staff at the MEDC remain just as interested in the success and future of UAS in Michigan.
 
"While the MEDC does not have a director role in the [Northwestern Michigan College] program, we are supportive of our college sand universities demonstration forward-thinking in developing programs to better prepare students for the jobs and opportunities of the future," explains Johnson. "I think NMC's Unmanned Aerial Systems program is a wonderful example of that."
 
"Perfect Fit"
 
Advocates see Michigan as a perfect fit for the industry. After all, there's no state in the nation that brings to mind manufacturing more than Michigan. Michigan also happens to be a state that can greatly benefit from the introduction of commercial use drones.
 
"When you look at commercial applications of the technology, the first thing that comes to everyone's mind are the applications for the agriculture industry," says Johnson. "That is significant for us as Michigan produces more than 300 commodities on a commercial basis, making us second only to California in agricultural diversity."
 
What attracts Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) proponents to the industry is their ability to bring precision. Offering an example of where precision is key, Johnson paraphrases Dr. Bruno Basso at Michigan State University's Department of Geological Science. The idea is essentially that if you cut yourself and need disinfectant, you don't drive into a pool of medicine. Rather, you apply it only where it's needed with the amount needed.
 
"That's what UAVs can do with precision agriculture," Johnson explains. "Rather than covering an entire field with fertilizer, it can be applied exactly where it's needed. The same is true for watering, the application of pesticides, herbicides, etcetera."
 
Cook seems to agree with Johnson's sentiment when it comes to the benefits of UAVs.
 
"Drones can do many things better, faster, and cheaper than traditional methods," he says, offering more examples in agriculture, forestry, film and infrastructure inspection. "Inspecting the Mackinac Bridge with a UAS can save time and reduce the risk to workers."
 
In all, the opportunities in UAS seem endless. Cook says this new aviation technology is anticipated to be an $82 billion industry and employ 100,000 workers by 2025.
 
Endless opportunity, indeed, and that's precisely what Cook says they are trying to prepare students for at NMC.
 
"Our goal is to ensure that our students receive an education to have the ability to obtain social and economic wealth," he explains. "This new technology has many opportunities to save lives, improve crop yields for the growing population and new entrepreneurial avenues."
 
Advancing Technology
 
However, Cook also acknowledges how many in the American public see drones. Rather than endless opportunity, some see it as an endless opportunity to conduct secretive wars without getting your hands bloodied. Others see it more simply as an invasion of privacy.
 
But Cook and Johnson don't have wars or 1984 in mind. They simply see new technology that can be used to better the lives of Michiganders. Cook looks at history to offer an example of how aviation technology advanced in war to ultimately transition to commercial uses we enjoy today.
 
"A good example is the Wright Flyer. It was advanced in design and reliability in World War I. After the war, aircraft started to be used for mail service and passenger transport. Today we enjoy this technology when we go to Florida for spring break or to save a life fighting wild fires. UAS are ready for commercialization to create a better standard of living."
 
Cooks final thoughts will, perhaps, put those with the most active imaginations at ease.
 
"Like all technology it has to be used responsibly and many laws currently exist to protect privacy."

Joe Baur is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Cleveland. He's also the Sections Editor of hiVelocity. You can contact him at joebaur.com.
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