Automated and aerial: Drone & Robotics Festival takes over Jack Barstow Municipal Airport

What do you get when you mix robotics, drone racing and the local airport? A whole ton of fun.

This past weekend, the first ever Drone & Robotics Festival welcomed more than 1,200 visitors to Jack Barstow Municipal Airport as part of the MATRIX: MIDLAND Festival put on by Midland Center for the Arts, Dow the Midland Aviation Education Association. The event was an extensive, hands-on experience that educated drone and robotics fans of all ages about the science, technology, capabilities and enjoyment of flying a drone and controlling a robot.

The event offered numerous hands-on experiences for all.

The brainchild of these three partners, the Drone & Robotics Festival offered something for everyone, from drone racing to learning how commercial operations are evolving with the overall goal of bringing the community together around some pretty cool technology.

Marco Ten Bruggencate, Dow’s Global Strategy Director for Polyurethane, CAV and Construction Chemicals was one of the key partners who helped pull the event together. Commenting on the intent to showcase technology at work in a really fun way Ten Bruggencate noted the event was an opportunity to both educate and provide an enjoyable, hands-on experience for the community.

“We welcome the opportunity to teach people, especially kids, more about the use of drones and robotics and how they can play an important part in our daily life,” says Ten Bruggencate. “Not only is it a great event to bring the community together around both the airport and the Midland Aviation Discovery Area, it is a great platform to demonstrate the ways in which our lives can be improved by drone and robotic technology.”

The brainchild of Dow, Midland Center for the Arts and the Midland Aviation Education Association, the Drone & Robotics Festival offered something for everyone.

The technology at work
Common industrial and commercial applications for drones include photography, property surveying, agricultural applications and more. But as the technology continues to advance, new avenues and uses for drones and robotics continues to evolve with new applications.

The technology is used for disaster recovery, battling wildfires and for companies like Zipline, urgent supply, blood and medical delivery in Rwanda and Ghana.

The hope is that the Drone & Robotics Festival will continue this tradition and fly in to Midland annually.

Dow incorporates drones and robots in manufacturing facilities to perform difficult or dangerous tasks like Confined Space Entry (CSE) and more. Because of their small and easily-maneuverable size, they are able to inspect and access places that might be difficult for a human to get to, so the technology has been advantageous and the process improves safety.

Once in the space, drones can perform different tasks as well, such as inspecting equipment, repairing equipment or mixing chemicals, where it would not be safe or possible for humans to do so.

Dow's Corporate Aviation Team explains how the company uses drones for different tasks.

In Midland, drones were utilized during the flooding issues of 2017 and are often used as part of disaster inspection protocol, due to their ability to quickly map and assess an area in a grid pattern.

First responders and police use drones to inspect a number of different applications and uses. Michigan State Police has utilized drones and robots since 2015. They are safe and advantageous tool for first responders in traffic inspections, accident reconstruction, barricaded gunman situations and more. Offering higher vantage points and a bird’s eye view, drones are helpful in documenting crime, crash and fire scenes with extreme accuracy.

Festival attendees got a up close look at what a drone sees during its flight path.

The path to a career
Drones and robotics are something that students are getting hands-on experience with as well. At the event, FIRST Robotics and many local area high schools were on site to display their hard work as part of recent competition projects, including robots that could track and pick up balls, depositing them into a bin.

SVSU’s Mobile Research Lab was on site to provide kids with the experience to explore water quality, STEM pathways and more. Northwestern Michigan College’s Unmanned Aerial Systems was also at the festival to teach those interested in a potential career paths with drones and robotics technology.

Pierce Thomas of Northern Michigan College's Unmanned Aerial Systems explains how drones are used in agriculture.

A program running since 2008, NMC offers a two-year associates degree program where students learn to operate commercial-grade equipment, learn the different device components, build and tune multi-rotor aircraft and obtain their certification as a Commercial UAS (Drone) Operator.

Located in Traverse City, the program focuses on providing industry-specific classes and equipping students with real-world experiences. Northern Michigan conveniently offers a unique setting to learn specific applications, notably agriculture, given the region’s wine and hop industries.

The program also partners with Michigan State University’s Agricultural program, blending the knowledge of the two disciplines to be able to provide targeted-use drone technology to agricultural applications in the Northern Michigan region. The cousrse can be taken on its own or in combination with the four-year marine technology degree where they learn remotely operated vehicle (ROV) disciplines.

Pierce Thomas, operations manager for Interactive Aerial, Inc., NMC graduate and now and NMC instructor himself, noted the complementary aspect of the two programs.

“The technology is something that we see employers seek in combination, so we often see many students apply themselves in both programs,” says Thomas. “I am a graduate myself and can attest to the fact that both skills are applicable to the industry today.”

A drone prepares to take off on the race course.

The community’s airport
Jim Cordes, president of Midland Aviation Education Association, noted the event was the first of its kind thanks to sponsors and help from local law enforcement, colleges, FIRST robotics, DGI Drones, Niles Construction, and many others.

Part of Cordes’ role is to make sure the public knows Jack Barstow Municipal Airport was the community’s airport, and accessible to all including the Midland Community Aviation Discovery Area (MCADA), which officially opened in 2016 after several years of planning.

The event welcomed over 1,200 drone and robotics fans to Jack Barstow Municipal Airport for a day of fun.

“The goal of the first Drone & Robotics Festival was to make the first as successful as possible and to let the community know the airport is here as a resource to use and learn from,” says Cordes. “We want to use the appeal of aviation to get kids of all ages learning about these things and eventually pursuing interests in STEM career fields.”

“We really enjoy teaching others about aviation and tell kids if you fly a drone, you are a pilot,” says Cordes. “That’s a big job that comes with responsibilities and there are so many factors that impact a flight plan, like weather conditions and physics.”

Attendees got to witness drone races, with drones speeding by at over 100 mph.

With all the thrill around the day, the hope is that the Drone & Robotics Festival will continue this tradition and fly in to Midland annually.

All pictures for this article are compliments of Michael Randolph for Midland Center for the Arts.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.