CHRISTIANSBURG — Some Southwest Virginians involved in technology, engineering and science research say the region could be the next hotspot not only for the development of drones, but for any vehicle that doesn’t require a human pilot.
To try to take advantage of that, a group is on the way to soon starting a regional chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Assuming all the paperwork gets OK’d with no issues, the group is planning a chapter launch event for March.
AUVSI is a global nonprofit that advocates and promotes unmanned systems and the robotics community. The regional chapter would do much of the same work on a local level, said Nanci Hardwick, CEO of Christiansburg engineering company Aeroprobe, who is helping to form the chapter. That would include promoting the unmanned industry to the public, trying to bring more jobs in the field to the region and tapping into the local startup and college communities to help grow the work on unmanned vehicles, she said.
“Everyone who has participated in this conversation agrees ... We are a region full of assets and would be a desirable place for companies to relocate,” Hardwick said.
Noting the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, Hardwick said Southwest Virginia is already home to some key groups in the realm of unmanned systems.
The aviation partnership, which is part of Virginia Tech, is one of six federally designated test sites for drones. Last summer, the organization oversaw the first federally-approved delivery of medicine during a much-publicized exercise that saw a drone fly through a very rural pocket of Southwest Virginia to deliver medicine to under-served patients.
Although its body of work is pretty wide and not always divulged, the transportation institute is known for its use of Blacksburg’s Smart Road as basically a transportation lab where the agency tests self-driving cars and experiments with driving conditions caused by simulated weather.
Most recently, a transportation institute study – commissioned by Google – suggested in its findings that self-driving cars could have lower severe crash rates than the ones directly operated by a human.
The chapter is “certainly about promoting the region as an industry cluster,” Hardwick said.
Two areas Hardwick said the chapter will try to bolster are the startup scene and college community.
Hardwick said she hopes the promotion of unmanned systems would interest more engineering and technology students from Virginia Tech, Radford University and even area community colleges in staying in the region to work in the field.
“Attracting industry here would help the region retain workforce out of Virginia Tech and other colleges, which is something the region has struggled with,” said Aeroprobe Director of Marketing Jenna Lazenby.
According to an Aeroprobe statement, more than a dozen economic development, higher education, research and corporate sponsors have committed nearly $25,000 to launch the chapter, which will be known as the Western Virginia AUVSI Chapter. The sponsors include Aeroprobe, unmanned vehicles developer TORC Robotics, the aviation partnership, the transportation institute, New River Community College and Montgomery County.
Aeroprobe builds tools used to test the effect of wind on aircraft, cars and turbomachinery. The company’s customers include auto aircraft maker Boeing and auto manufacturers Bugatti, Hyundai and FIAT.
Hardwick said the only other AUVSI Virginia chapter is in Hampton Roads. She said Washington, D.C., also has a chapter that is open to groups from Northern Virginia.
The Western Virginia AUVSI Chapter will, however, cover a far-reaching region that will not only include the New River Valley, but also roughly stretch across Roanoke, Lynchburg and the rural Wise area.
Drones have generated an increasing amount of buzz among the general public in recent years as proponents have touted the aircraft’s potential to revolutionize industries and practices such as shipping, health care, photography and land surveying.
Supporters of autonomous cars, or any vehicle that doesn’t require a direct pilot, have repeatedly suggested that automating driving would remove human error, and therefore theoretically reduce crashes and traffic deaths.
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