Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The same forward-thinking approach that led to the establishment of Fort Custer Industrial Park in 1972 is being applied to the future development of a commercial drone park at the Battle Creek Executive Airport, says Robert Corder, Vice President, Attraction for Battle Creek Unlimited.
What set the Industrial Park apart 50 years ago was the decision by leadership at that time to seek out Japanese companies that would eventually establish manufacturing and production facilities at Fort Custer.
“I don’t think most people fully understood how forward-thinking that was at the time,” Corder says. “The drone sector is that movement with a new industry. Where we are today is where we were in 1972.”
The official name for this emerging sector is Unmanned Aerial Systems
and it is anticipated to have significant growth in coming years. Fortune Business Insights
says in an article on its website that, the global commercial drone market was projected to grow from $2.3 billion in 2021 to $11.2 billion by 2028.
Phil Kroll is the Aviation Director for the Battle Creek Executive Airport.
The drones that BCU is focusing on aren’t the small, personal drones most people see operated by individuals to capture images at parks, beaches, events, and festivals.
“They’re not the small, personal hobbyist drones,” Corder says. “These are large, commercial-scale drones that are similar in appearance to commercial aircraft. But, their design has been refined to do the work they’re intended for.
“A lot of big drones are being used by the military, but aerospace companies like Boeing are commercializing that technology and taking all the lessons they learned from the military and bringing it over to commercial markets so that the planes can fly themselves or remotely.”
However, trained pilots control these drones from the ground. This is already happening at the Air National Guard Base in Battle Creek, he says.
The city’s sizable military presence gives Battle Creek an advantage over other areas of the United States that also may be looking to establish a drone presence.
“We have a huge federal presence here,” Corder says. “We have a Marine Reserve Unit, the Hart Dole Inouye Federal Center
and the ANG which has a remote drone operations mission.”
Robert Corder is Vice President of Attraction for Battle Creek.
And having an airport that has available space and is home to Duncan Aviation, WACO Aircraft, and Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation are also major selling points that BCU is using to secure the millions of dollars in funding that will be required to develop a Drone Park here.
In 2021 BCU made a request to the Federal government for $59 million through Build Back Better Regional Challenge Grant Program
launched that same year by the Biden administration. If approved, that money would have been used for items such as a new radar visualization system, runway and airport improvements, and workforce training and equity scholarships.
Under a timeline that would have been set in motion with the Build Back Better funds, Corder says the project would have created 1,000 new jobs by 2031. These jobs would have paid above average wages and would require a highly-skilled and trained workforce.
“We weren’t picked and there was no explanation given,” Corder says. “A lot of the funding went for projects in major metropolitan areas.”
Now BCU is working with elected officials, including Sen. Gary Peters on a congressionally directed spending request for several million dollars and is also having conversations with other potential funders. They also have a lobbyist working on their behalf in Washington, DC.
“We are talking with everybody and working with multiple groups. This is a long-term play,” Corder says.
“In order for the UAS industry to grow, a network of next-generation airports will be required that can accommodate remote and autonomous technologies also called Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) which means it can be controlled, but not seen by the pilot controlling it,” according to Talking points created by BCU for a Drone Park in Battle Creek. “BCU is positioning the Battle Creek Executive Airport to serve as a base for drone manufacturing, operations, training, maintenance and repair, and air mobility.”
Among the airport’s strengths is a main runway that is 10,004 feet in length and a parallel runway that is 4,100 feet long. The length of these runways is necessary to attract new companies looking to do business at the drone park, Corder says. He says the airport, owned by the City of Battle Creek, has 200 acres of undeveloped land to the west that would easily accommodate the activity generated by the park.
“We are ideally suited for drone park because we already have everything here,” Corder says. “We would be the first commercial drone park in Michigan.”
The first drone park in the United States is located in Grand Forks, ND
. The effort to get it was a full-on statewide effort from the governor on down. Corder says he would like to see a similar effort here.
A plan already four years in the making
In 2018, BCU received a $250,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to fund a feasibility study related to the drone sector. The study showed that Battle Creek could accommodate a drone park.
These are the types of drones that could utilize a drone park in Battle Creek.
“It was clear from that study that the west side of the airport had a lot of development potential and that Unmanned Aerial Systems is an emerging market and we could be a good fit,” says Ted Dearing, Battle Creek Assistant City Manager. “The airport has a lot of potential for growth and a lot of potential because of that long runway.”
After that study, Corder says BCU then invested $3 million in site preparation work on the 200 acres that would be developed.
The work involved in that site preparation included finding the kind of dirt that could handle heavy loads and weights related to commercial drones and their payloads, installation of utilities, engineering of the site, and the building of a bridge over railroad tracks to allow unobstructed access to the area. In its current configuration, Corder says there’s no way to create a proper entrance.
“The big investment is creating vehicle access,” says Ted Dearing, Battle Creek Assistant City Manager. “We’ve got a railroad line that runs along the west side of the airport. People would come from Skyline Drive onto the west side and we’d create access over an existing railroad line there. We know if we can open up access it will offer great opportunities there for traditional aeronautic uses.”
But before the drone park goes from concept to reality, several different things need to come together, says Phil Kroll, Aviation Director for the Battle Creek Executive Airport.
“We have the area for it but that area still needs to be developed. Uneven land has to be leveled out. We need access from main roadways and even from the airfield. There still needs to be some infrastructure development,” he says. “We’ve got buy-in from the airport, BCU, and the city, but we still need some partnerships.”
Kroll says a project of this scope also requires buy-in from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
These are the types of drones that could utilize a drone park in Battle Creek.
“The FAA is still probably not where they need to be quite yet where drones are concerned. There are some legislative and regulatory steps that need to be taken for what we want to do or our companies need to do,” Kroll says.
The companies that would be potential tenants of the drone park would be focused on drone manufacturing and maintenance, drone operations, freight surveillance and testing, Corder says.
Kroll says because the airport is not set up for passenger air traffic like Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) or Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (ORD), it is uniquely positioned to accommodate the type of air traffic and operations for a drone park. The main purpose for DTW and ORD, he says, is to provide commercial passenger air service and they have major carriers as tenants.
“We’re an airport focused on private jets and that’s just what we want,” Kroll says. “We don’t want to have to deal with the unknown. We don’t have a big budget or a ton of operations and we’re OK with that. The reason we’re in a good position is that the city, airport, and BCU want to be at the forefront and see what we as an airport can capture, how we can deliver to Battle Creek, how we can create good jobs, and what kind of economic impact we can create for the city, Calhoun County and the State of Michigan. We want to develop that and are willing to take the risks.”
Contrary to what some people think, the idea of Unmanned Aerial Systems is not science fiction and it’s happening now, Corder says.
“We want to create the next industry that Battle Creek can dominate and create training for career opportunities and attract investment,” he says. “We’re confident that the dollars are there, but we have to hunt them down.”