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The economy of Wilmington, Ohio was devastated three years ago when the shipping company DHL left town, taking thousands of jobs with it. City leaders now want to embrace a rapidly growing industry - unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs. In popular culture, they're somewhat inaccurately called drones. The Federal Aviation Administration recently gave the Air Force permission to test UAVs at the now largely vacant Wilmington Air Park. Here's Ann Thompson of member station WVXU.
ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I'm standing on what used to be a very busy airstrip in Wilmington, Ohio. That's not the case anymore. In fact, there's grass growing on it. At the height of its operation, DHL flew 150 planes a day out of here. The German company pulled out in 2009.
Want to know how dire it is now? The Wilmington Air Park now has 150 planes a year taking off. But it's not all gloom and doom here. People like Kevin Carver are looking to get the air park going again and it doesn't involve pilots.
KEVIN CARVER: The picture that you're looking at is a little over 1,900 acres that the Port Authority owns. Runways, taxiways, tarmac and almost three million square feet of buildings.
THOMPSON: Inside one of those buildings, Carver, who heads the Clinton County Port Authority, is pointing to the south runway on an aerial map. That's where the Air Force has started testing unmanned aerial vehicles. These UAVs are remotely piloted aircraft and range in size from hobby shop to small planes. They're cousins of the much better known drones, which are much larger and piloted by a computer program.
With DHL and the 9,000 people it once employed gone, the property sits largely vacant. For months, Carver has tried to attract companies to this massive property with little luck. Wilmington residents like Jim Flint are getting impatient.
JIM FLINT: People are out of jobs. They can't find jobs, not only Wilmington, but in surrounding counties.
THOMPSON: The UAVs the Air Force is testing have wingspans of no more than six feet and weigh 10 to 25 pounds. This is slightly bigger than the helicopter these same researchers tested indoors at the nearby Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
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THOMPSON: They have to make sure the miniature helicopter will respond quickly and accurately to remote controls. On-board instrument and sensor packages are also being tested. The research in Wilmington is similar. The head of the Air Force Research Laboratory at the base, Joe Sciabica, is amazed at how fast the UAV market has blossomed. He proudly pulls out a picture of what he calls the Batcam, which is already in use.
JOE SCIABICA: This one's a composite vehicle. It's one that will actually fold up so that the, you know, wings kind of roll around it and can be carried by a soldier. They basically pull it out of their rucksack. And it's battery operated, it has a small camera on it, and so they can throw it up and it flies maybe at, you know, a few hundred feet.
THOMPSON: As the skies get busier, the FAA wants to make sure piloted and unmanned aircraft can safely fly in the same airspace. Later this year, the agency will pick six UAV test sites and Wilmington and suburban Dayton hope to be on that list.
The Port Authority's Kevin Carver knows that UAVs don't provide an immediate economic payoff, but he's still pushing plans to promote this air park as a place to test military and commercial UAV technology. It's just one strategy to bring much needed jobs back to the city, and he may be on to something. It's estimated that by 2020 the UAV industry will be worth $94 billion a year.
For NPR news, I'm Ann Thompson.
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