A proposed drone park in Battle Creek has secured $7 million in state funding to advance its development, highlighting the latest in statewide efforts to seize economic opportunity from the nascent industry.
The Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Park slated for roughly 200 vacant acres on the west side of the Battle Creek Executive Airport missed out on federal grant funding at the end of 2021, but has now secured $7 million in the next state budget that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Monday.
The park is intended to serve as a hub for unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as well as commercial drone manufacturing and flight testing, according to Joe Sobieralski, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited Inc., the economic development organization that is driving the project.
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Battle Creek Unlimited has been working on plans for the park for about five years with airport officials and the city of Battle Creek. The new state funding will support the development of what Sobieralski calls virtual infrastructure: Radar technology that will allow drones to coexist with manned aircraft in the same airspace.
“This first $7 million will allow us to begin the process of putting the procedures in place, working with the Federal Aviation Administration and getting the right radar visualization system in that will then allow the Battle Creek Executive Airport to support land launching and recovering UAS,” Sobieralski told Crain’s Grand Rapids.
In 2018, Battle Creek Unlimited received a $150,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to fund a feasibility study on the Battle Creek Executive Airport and surrounding airspace.
The report indicated favorable conditions for the unmanned aerial systems park, supported by the presence of organizations such as the Western Michigan University College of Aviation, the Battle Creek Air National Guard (federally designated as the 110th Attack Wing), and the federal FAA Battle Creek Flight Inspection Field Office.
Sobieralski cited success from a similar project that officials hope to emulate with the Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Park. The Grand Sky Business and Aviation Park in Grand Forks, N.D., broke ground in 2015 on 217 acres, anchored by energy and defense corporation General Atomics and aerospace technology company Northrop Gunman. The site was specifically designed for UAS-specific business and aviation.
“(That park) has attracted 231 employees at an average salary of $123,000, so their annual economic impact at that site is $19 million,” Sobieralski said. “That’s just kind of a specific case study of what we’re really trying to emulate — high wage jobs, good growing jobs, all those kinds of things.”
After securing the state funding included in the budget that starts Oct. 1, Sobieralski said the next step while awaiting the state dollars will be to reassess and reaffirm the original feasibility study before it’s full speed ahead on developing the virtual infrastructure and physical facilities.
The project is informally referred to as a drone park, but Sobieralski noted the project is different from the kind of small drones available for personal recreational use.
“We’re positioning this not toward your small camera-type stuff that you can buy at a hobby shop — we’re gearing this toward the large defense and big aviation players with larger drones, whether it be for cargo or border protection or those types of things,” he said. “We’re hoping to at least make it available if the Department of Defense community ever wants to take advantage of it.”
Sobieralski also said the project team has participated in initial discussions with other airports that could serve as potential connection points for drones. While he declined to disclose which specific airports are being considered at this time, he said the updates to the feasibility study likely will recommend airport options within a 60-mile radius of Battle Creek.
“We’re very thankful for the state of Michigan and the legislature to really allow us to start gaining some traction for the state on this,” Sobieralski said.
Economic development potential
State officials in recent years have devoted increasing attention to UAS. In 2017, a 27-member Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force was formed to guide statewide policy recommendations on the operation, use, and regulation of UAS.
“It was at a time where drones were just sort of becoming a little bit more mainstream and there were a lot of safety- and security-related concerns overall,” said Bryan Budds, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Aeronautics, citing concerns around the protection of infrastructure and effects on law enforcement and emergency responders.
After the task force released an early report with roughly a dozen recommendations, some of which required legislative action that took place in the following years, the task force’s focus started to shift.
“As the task force and the industry evolved a little bit, it turned more toward an economic development eye within the task force of: How do we integrate drones safely and efficiently, but also make sure that if they become more prevalent in Michigan, they serve a public purpose and help connect people and provide additional mobility options?” Budds said.
Since then, pockets of UAS activity have emerged around the state, such as the Detroit Region Aerotropolis, some testing sites in Alpena, as well as local airports dabbling in drone use, Budds said.
However, the Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Park would be a first-of-its-kind concept in Michigan, and something Budds said could be an opportunity for collaboration for the department.
“That’s where we’re excited to have Battle Creek have some support as well, because I think there’s a good opportunity for MDOT and Battle Creek Unlimited to partner based on some of the studies we’ve done and some of the studies they’re doing,” Budds said. “I think the eventual vision is as the industry continues to mature, those sorts of systems begin to mesh and there’s a statewide system where drones and advanced air mobility can operate safely and efficiently and provide some additional mobility options for folks in Michigan.”
Outside data also indicate the potential for Michigan to seize opportunities in the drone industry. According to a 2022 drone commerce report from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Michigan ranked 19th out of all 50 states in readiness for commercial drone services. The report weighed states based on factors such as airspace lease law, the presence of a drone task force or office, air rights for land owners and potential job estimates.
More broadly, a Deloitte study cited by the Alliance for Aviation Across America shows that the advanced aviation market in the U.S. is expected to reach $115 billion per year and support more than 280,000 high-paying jobs by 2035. Creating good paying jobs in this industry at the local level could spur business development and new market opportunities, according to the study.
“We’re further ahead than most,” Sobieralski said, “but we’re still kind of in our infancy of where this is going. … I think it’s a start for this state.”