Ohio nonprofit to run NASA civilian drone contest

This Sept. 2011 photo provided by Vanguard Defense Industries, shows a ShadowHawk drone with Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members.

This Sept. 2011 photo provided by Vanguard Defense Industries, shows a ShadowHawk drone with Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members.  (AP/Vanguard Defense Industries)

An Ohio nonprofit organization will manage a contest for NASA that's aimed at helping drones fly safely in civilian airspace.

NASA said Friday that it selected the nonprofit Development Projects Inc. in Dayton to run the competition involving unmanned aerial vehicles — better known as drones.

The contest is expected to draw at least 25 competing teams across the country to fly the robotic aircraft in restricted airspace above the Camp Atterbury military operating range in southern Indiana, the Dayton Daily News reported.

"The airspace that we need to do this competition needed to be restricted airspace," said Larry Cooper, program executive of the NASA Centennial Challenges program in Washington.

He said there are only a limited number of places in the country to conduct tests, and NASA received proposals from nine states.

Development Projects will partner with NASA, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton and the FAA to demonstrate key technologies, said Dick Honneywell, vice president of aerospace for the Dayton Development Coalition — Development Projects is the coalition's public sector funding arm.

The fly-off will test the drones' capabilities to avoid aircraft broadcasting their location and direction along with determing how well drones broadcast their own position, Cooper said.

The winner of the first phase of the NASA contest to start next year will receive $500,000 and the winner of the second phase in 2015 or later will get $1 million, Cooper said.

Unmanned aircraft systems have the potential to perform tasks that are too expensive or dangerous for piloted aircraft. They can carry instruments into hurricanes and be used to assess flood damage or monitor remote power lines and pipelines.

"It's a big thing so it bodes well for Ohio and our region that NASA has selected us," said Larrell Walters, division head of sensor systems at the University of Dayton Research Institute.

The selection of the Dayton nonprofit organization to manage the competition came as part of a competition to land one of six test sites to integrate drones into civilian airspace by 2015. Ohio and Indiana have filed a joint proposal seeking an FAA test zone.

The selection of Development Projects to run the NASA contest could boost Ohio and Indiana's chances to get an FAA test zone, said Joseph Zeis, executive vice president and chief strategic officer with the Dayton Development Coalition.

Area officials say that getting such a test zone could generate major economic benefits.