Michigan Central and MDOT Launch Drone Innovation Hub in Detroit

Michigan Central and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced today the launch of Detroit’s Advanced Aerial Innovation Region – an initiative that will position the state as a leader in 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.

As the first cross-sector, advanced aerial urban initiative in the United States, the innovation region aims to future-proof Michigan’s status as a mobility solutions epicenter and stake a claim to jobs and economic opportunities in an industry predicted to top $50 billion by 2030. 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.

“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.”

“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. “This new initiative is the result of an effective partnership between Michigan Central and the Michigan Department of Transportation. 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. Let’s keep getting it done.”

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.

“This initiative and strong partnership will further reinforce Michigan as a global leader in the development and deployment of advanced mobility technologies that will benefit society, protect the environment and strengthen Michigan’s economy,” said State Transportation Director Bradley C. Wieferich. “Michigan is leading the development and implementation of a coordinated advanced air mobility strategy that will leverage Michigan’s existing infrastructure, industrial and defense base, and supply chain networks to gain a competitive advantage in the sector.”

Critical to the initiatives’ success is the ability to convene cross-sector stakeholders, made possible by the ground-breaking public-private partnership between Michigan Central, the State of Michigan and the City of Detroit. This framework creates open dialogue and invites new ways of working together on advancing mobility and innovative solutions to societal challenges that will benefit all Michiganders.

“The Office of Future Mobility and Electrification is pleased to join our partners in supporting the Advanced Aerial Innovation Region,” said Justine Johnson, Michigan’s chief mobility officer. “This initiative builds on our broader efforts to strengthen Michigan’s leadership in the next generation of mobility and transportation technologies. As the mobility industry continues to grow and evolve, we are laser-focused on leveraging new solutions and entrepreneurial resources to keep Michigan at the forefront of mobility for generations to come.”

“Newlab is focused on breaking down the barriers that deep tech startups face getting technology to market,” said Newlab Chief Business Officer Liz Keen. “Policy is the most significant barrier for advanced aerial mobility startups. Pilots enabled through this collaboration will generate real-world data to help advance policy in the space while also allowing startups to validate commercial use cases with potential customers.”

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 $17 billion today to more than $50 billion, while the urban air mobility market will catapult from $2.6 billion to $28 billion over the next seven years.

Public benefit

The Advanced Aerial Innovation Region partners are committed to community engagement throughout the two-year pilot period and to ensuring the benefits of Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM) and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) can be shared by all. Drones have the potential to close accessibility gaps through the delivery of critical goods to people with mobility challenges. Urban air mobility development has the power to expand economic opportunities for citizens impacted by transit gaps in communities historically disconnected from mainline transportation networks.

The project will also cultivate workforce development opportunities and skills programs to create a pipeline of talent prepared to join the emerging advanced aerial economy. Leading academic institutions have partnered with Michigan Central to conduct research aimed at advancing AAM and UAS technologies, policies, and increasing public awareness. The first project to launch is a study with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to build a model that represents future drone flights in Detroit. The goal is to identify inequities in the predicted drone traffic and infrastructure and determine if policy interventions might be required to ensure a more equitable future as the industry scales.

In the future, as drones and other next-generation aircraft are more widely adopted in mobility applications, AAM has the potential to lower emissions by reducing ground traffic and to enable net-zero transportation with these aircrafts running on battery power and or other alternative fuels.

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