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Drones: A New Manufacturing Frontier in Virginia?

Richard Unten / Creative Commons

Virginia has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years, as globalization led companies to places where labor and resources were cheaper.  Senator Mark Warner sees a chance for the Commonwealth to make a comeback in a hot new industry - drones.

In a large tank at the University of Virginia’s engineering school, Senator Mark Warner watches a man-made manta ray taking a swim.  Professor Hilary Bart-Smith explains why UVA and four other schools are helping the Navy design fast, agile underwater drones.

“Underwater swimming is one of those things that man-made systems do not do well.  There are systems that can swim for long distances but are usually very slow, and are not very maneuverable. There are systems that are extremely maneuverable, but are not very fast.”

Teams of faculty members and students use high speed photography to study how rays, fish and dolphins swim, then creating lifelike drones that could do important jobs. 

“One of the things we’re thinking about is deploying a swarm of these in the Chesapeake, so we can monitor the conditions of the Chesapeake Bay.  They can be sent out, gathering information and then come back to the source to download that information.  Another application is in situations where it would be dangerous for humans - the disaster that happened in the Gulf of Mexico.  Another one is inspecting bridges.”

Two floors up, graduate student Ayodeji Bode-Oke and his colleagues are studying hummingbirds and insects

“If you want to fly, you need a pressure difference between the top and bottom surface.  Insects are actually experts in doing that.”

These creatures can actually bend their wings in such a way as to create tiny tornadoes on top.

“A tornado creates a low pressure region, which helps the insects to fly, so bumble bees, for example, should not be able to fly, but because they keep that tornado attached, they can fly.”

Warner hopes this kind of research, underway at UVA and Virginia Tech, will propel this state into a new industry.

“Last year there were a million drones sold at Christmas to hobbyists all across this country.  The unfortunate thing is none of those drones were built in the United States.”

As a guy who made his money getting in on the ground floor of wireless communication, Warner is passionate about the possibilities.

“There are huge concerns around privacy, around safety, but the truth is drones are coming.  We’re looking at something that could be as transformative as the wireless industry.”

The key, he says, is to develop advanced manufacturing technology that allows us to compete with Asia and to provide the training workers will need to do these new jobs.

“Nobody is going to work the same job at the same company for 40 years the way my dad did.  The truth is people are going to have a variety of careers throughout their life.  One of the things we need is a lot more creativity about how we improve people’s quality of skills, because every job is going to go through transformation.”

Virginia is one of six states authorized by the FAA to test drones, and Google recently announced it would do its testing here.  That’s great, Warner says, but we must also convince companies to make drones in Virginia.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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