Michigan Central and MDOT launch advanced aerial innovation region in Detroit

Michigan Central and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) have announced the launch of Detroit’s Advanced Aerial Innovation Region, an initiative to support next-generation aerial mobility and drone technology by attracting startups, catalyzing new high-skill jobs, advancing policy, and driving commercialization and adoption of drone technology, says the press release.

Covering a 3-mile radius around Michigan Central, the two-year project will provide open, shared infrastructure and services that enable commercial drone development while ensuring safety in the air and on the ground. Participating drone operators will have access to concept and operational support. The initiative will propel solutions focused on addressing accessibility, safety, tech equity, and regulatory challenges by testing potential commercial drone uses ranging from delivery of medical supplies, consumer goods and manufacturing materials to infrastructure inspection. Initial usage pilots will launch early next year.

Michigan Central will provide resources for foundational infrastructure, community engagement and skills training. MDOT will manage the network and define operating parameters, as well as data and safety protocols. Flight data from all pilots will feed the initiative’s overarching goal to drive drone operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Gaining Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) BVLOS approval would reduce existing barriers to commercial development and allow operators to fly drones without maintaining visual sightlines, opening the door for longer-range delivery and a variety of new potential uses in southeast Michigan. Strategic partners Newlab and Airspace Link will support activation and development in the Advanced Aerial Innovation Region.

Newlab will collaborate with Michigan Central and MDOT to mobilize startups and industry partners through pilot projects aimed at de-risking and accelerating the commercial scale of high-value drone use cases. Airspace Link will provide the platform and processes to support safe operations in a real-world urban environment. Its platform creates digital mapping using more than 60 data sources to help drone operators understand ground and airspace risks at any given time while simplifying unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flight authorization requests to the FAA. Airspace Link will also boost visibility for the public so that Detroit residents can understand which flights, plans and programs will happen in the area.

The initiative will offer open access to shared resources and services, allowing pilot programs to test and evaluate drone capabilities for various uses. This will provide valuable insights for optimizing conditions, validating and expanding commercial applications, meeting demand, and economic feasibility. The results have the potential to mobilize the entire advanced aerial mobility ecosystem of operators, startups and industry stakeholders by breaking down existing barriers to commercial development.

The Advanced Aerial Innovation Region initiative builds on an MDOT, Michigan Central and Michigan Aeronautics Commission (MAC) study that analyzed the potential societal and economic benefits of the commercial use of drones. The study also looked at the feasibility of flying drones beyond visual line of sight along key corridors in southeast Michigan and Ontario. Active collaboration with Ontario will continue within the innovation region to explore uses that increase cross-border supply chain resilience and inform advanced aerial policy between the United States and Canada.

Growth in the advanced aerial mobility sector represents a generational economic development and job creation opportunity for the state of Michigan. A Precedence Research analysis predicts the drone market will grow threefold by 2030, from USD17 billion today to more than USD50 billion, while the urban air mobility market will catapult from USD2.6 billion to USD28 billion over the next seven years.

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