Detroit: from Motor City to Drone City?

Detroit has long been known as the Motor City given its association with the automotive industry. But soon, it might be able to call itself drone city.

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) in partnership with a tech project called Michigan Central announced the launch of the “Advanced Aerial Innovation Region” (AAIR). The initiative was established to position Detroit and the broader state of Michigan as a leader in next-generation aerial mobility and drone technology. Its goal? To attract startups, to catalyze new high-skill jobs, to advance policy and ultimately to drive commercialization and adoption of drone technology.

Deetroit Michigan Central drone future
Photo by Stephen McGee

What to know about the Michigan Central project

The project centers around a three-mile radius surrounding Michigan Central, which is a district located in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

The Michigan Central district has all sorts of innovations happening around mobility. Ford Motor Company is restoring Michigan Central Station to be the centerpiece of this district. Outdoor plazas and open spaces are being built to promote walkability. And yes, drones are going to be a part of it, too.

Credit Stephen McGee Michigan Central Drone handout Blueflite drone test community demoCredit Stephen McGee Michigan Central Drone handout Blueflite drone test community demo
Photo by Stephen McGee

Among the drone projects anticipated to occur under the Michigan Central project include using drones to deliver medical supplies, consumer goods and manufacturing materials. Then there are other sensor-based use cases such as infrastructure inspections. 

The project relies on a range of companies and teams coming together. Michigan Central will offer foundational infrastructure, community engagement and skills training. The City of Detroit is unsurprisingly bought in. And MDOT, of course, is a critical partner too, there to manage drone networks and to define operating parameters. Of course, it’ll have a heavy hand in establishing data and safety protocols.

There are also private companies involved in the Advanced Aerial Innovation Region too. They are:

  • Newlab: Newlab will help launch pilot projects aimed at de-risking and accelerating the commercial scale of high-value drone use cases.
  • Airspace Link: Airspace Link will offer up use of its platform, which creates digital maps designed to help drone operators understand ground and airspace risks in real-time. It ingests more than 60 data sources yet can simplify Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) flight authorization requests to the FAA. Even for people in Detroit who don’t fly drones, Airspace Link will allow Detroit residents to understand which flights (or planned flights) are happening nearby.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Airspace Link, which is one of just a handful of FAA-approved LAANC service suppliers, was itself founded in Detroit.

AirHub Portal from Airspace LinkAirHub Portal from Airspace Link
A glimpse of the AirHub Portal from Airspace Link.

The Detroit project also is putting beyond visual line of sight drone flights at its forefront. Much of that entails the potential to build corridors in Southeast Michigan and Ontario to test BVLOS flights. Project leader say they have plans to collaborate with Ontario to explore uses that increase cross-border supply chain resilience — which could inform advanced aerial policy between the U.S. and Canada.

Another project coming out of the broader Central Michigan project is part of a study with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where a team is building a model that represents future drone flights in Detroit. The goal of that project? To identify inequities in the predicted drone traffic and infrastructure, and use that information to inform whether or not policy interventions might be necessary.

Detroit Michigan central droneDetroit Michigan central drone
A drone flies at the Michigan Central drone community demo day. Photo by Nadir Ali for Michigan Central

How long will the Central Michigan project last?

Initial usage pilots are set to launch early next year. From there, the project has just a two-year timeline. But don’t expect it to be over after that; that’s just the period for the community to provide a targeted means of open, shared infrastructure and services designed to enable commercial drone development. That also means participating drone operators will have access to specific operational support during that period.

But it’ll hardly stop after just two years. The project leaders are looking long term, with a vision to stake a claim to jobs and economic opportunities in an industry predicted to top $50 billion by 2030. 

Detroit demo dayDetroit demo day
A drone flies at the Michigan Central drone community demo day. Photo by Nadir Ali for Michigan Central

What Detroit could do for the drone industry

The team is positioning it as a first-of-its-kind initiative for not just the state but the entire U.S.

 Many cities or regions have sought to position themselves as innovation hubs.

In New York, a 50-mile corridor for drones functions as a sort of digital drone highway that spans between Central New York to the Mohawk Valley. That corridor is designed to allow companies to test drones and UTM technology in real world settings, generating data for the industry and regulators, all in the hopes of making widespread commercial drone adoption more viable.

South Dakota was an early drone adopter, having built the nation’s first unmanned airport back in 2015 called the Grand Sky Development Park, at the state’s Grand Forks Air Force Base. That project sought to attract drone startups to the area.

Of course, there are also the seven FAA UAS Test Sites across the country, which are:

  • New Mexico State University, NM
  • North Dakota Department of Commerce, ND
  • State of Nevada, NV
  • State of New York, NY
  • Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, TX
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks, AK
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, VA

But what Detroit is positioning harkens back to ideas not unlike Walt Disney’s version for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, shortened to EPCOT. That vision was for a planned community where ideas for modernism and futurism could be tested. It sought to replace urban sprawl with a planned city featuring commercial, residential, industrial and recreational centers, connected by a mass multimodal transportation system.

detroit Advanced Aerial Innovation Zone Map Newlab at Michigan Centraldetroit Advanced Aerial Innovation Zone Map Newlab at Michigan Central
An Advanced Aerial Innovation Zone Map. Photo by Newlab at Michigan Central

With drones in the picture alongside the rest of the Central Michigan project, perhaps Detroit could be something of that sort. After all, drones have proven to save money and time, and they’ve also proven environmentally friendly, with the potential to lower emissions by reducing ground traffic and to enable net-zero transportation given that drones typically run on battery power and or other alternative fuels.

“This first-of-its-kind collaboration will be the framework that puts Detroit in the fast lane for advanced aerial innovation and job creation,” said Carolina Pluszczynski, Michigan Central’s chief operating officer. “As we start launching pilot projects next year, we will prioritize ideas that bridge equity gaps, improve safety and make it easier for people to access the goods and services they need.”

credit Airspace Link drone in flightcredit Airspace Link drone in flight
Photo by Airspace Link

Already, MDOT and other key Michigan players within the government are bought in. That was largely due to examples like a study that analyzed the potential societal and economic benefits of the commercial use of drones. Another Precedence Research analysis predicted the drone market would grow threefold by 2030 from $17 billion today to more than $50 billion over the next seven years, resulting in generational economic development and job creation opportunities.

“Michigan is on the cutting-edge of mobility innovation, and with the launch of the new Advanced Aerial Innovation Region in Detroit, we will continue leading the way,” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer. “Michiganders have always been pioneers in the mobility space and now, we are taking to the skies, finding new ways to use next-generation transportation to deliver medical supplies, food and so much more.”

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