ALPENA - There are a lot of questions in the community about the Alpena County unmanned aircraft project. People want to know what the Center of Excellence is, who Alpena County's partners are and why they are necessary, and where the money will come from to make the project a reality.
During Thursday's intergovernmental council meeting Commissioners Cam Habermehl and Lyle VanWormer updated the rest of the area's governing bodies on the latest project news and where it should be in the months ahead.
Habermehl told the council - which is made up of the commissioners, Alpena Municipal Council and leaders from the townships - that the Michigan Department of Economic Development has pledged $500,000 to put toward having Explorer Solutions handle the details involved in meeting the requirements for the upcoming request for proposal for the Center of Excellence. He also explained how the county considered attempting to get the designation for itself, but realized it needed to include other partners, and possibly even states to give it the best chance.
Habermehl said there are two parts to the project. The first being attempting to become a Center of Excellence for unmanned aircrafts, and the second, which will allow companies from within the drone business community and outside of it to lease or purchase property near the airport to run businesses. Habermehl said one hurdle already has been cleared that would allow aircrafts to take flight locally and testing could commence in a few months if things go right.
"We got our concept of operations manual together, which is basically the rules on how they can fly and what they can do," Habermehl said. "That had been a stumbling block, but we needed to have it done before anyone would be able to fly here. It is now completed and it is my understanding - and I'm talking a few months - they should be testing out there. They could conduct tests right now."
VanWormer told the council it is important for people to understand that not all of the drones that may be tested or trained with will be military in nature. He said the use of unmanned aircrafts used in the commercial and private sector is going to expand and he thinks Alpena will benefit from it. He also said the type of radar that monitors air traffic at the airport and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center is one the government prefers for one of its Centers of Excellence. He said that fact should make the newly formed coalition a front-runner.
"They have drones that are so tiny they can buzz around inside of a house all the way to the 22,000 pound planes," VanWormer said. "There are three different types of radar they require and we have one. We can pick up small objects in the airspace and the larger ones. The places that don't have this would have to hire a plane to follow the drone during its testing, but with the radar we have that wouldn't be neccessary. It can be watched closely from the ground, so that would be a large cost savings for companies."
VanWormer then explained how the infrastructure surrounding the property at the airport needs to be installed. He said a water and sewer system needs to be put in place, as well as "grade A" streets. He said the MEDC will play a role in trying to provide funding, as well as grants to the federal government. He said the estimated cost to have these tasks completed would be in the neighborhood of about $2 million.
In other business:
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5689.