New blimp drone could bring manufacturing jobs in Springfield

Published: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @ 9:45 PM
Updated: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @ 9:45 PM

Staying with the story

The Springfield News-Sun provides in-depth coverage of how drones and unmanned aircraft could change the economy in Clark County, including plans for a precision agriculture program at Clark State Community College.

State employees learned Wednesday how to operate a new aerostat — or blimp drone — and the technology could bring manufacturing jobs to Springfield in the future.

The device consists of a 15-foot-diameter helium-filled balloon that can float up to 500 feet in the air. It has a camera mounted to the bottom and can see up to 15 miles.

The manufacturer, Lighter Than Air Systems of Jacksonville, Fla., currently produces the aerostats on a low-level scale, according to Terry Hofecker, chief technology officer at Trident Aerial Recon, which re-sells the blimps.

Content Continues Below

As orders grow it will need to ramp up manufacturing, and he said he is working with local economic development leaders to draft plans to possibly move to Springfield if that happens.

“We think they’ll like the manufacturing culture in the Midwest, Ohio and Springfield area,” Hofecker said.

The Joint IED Defeat Organization first used the device in Afghanistan to look for improvised explosive devices, said Rob King, lead trainer with Lighter than Air.

“This particular system is unique. This is more of a commercial and law enforcement variant so its not as robust as say the Army system,” he said.

The Ohio Department of Transportation recently bought one of the blimp drones and tested it on Wednesday at the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex in Springfield.

At about $15 an hour to operate, the unmanned aircraft is much cheaper than sending a person up in a helicopter.

“We are looking at applications, new ways of stretching the taxpayer’s dollar,” UAS Test Center’s Chief of Staff David Gallagher said. “We think UAS provide an alternative, in some cases, where we can deploy small aircraft to do surveying and mapping.”

Gallagher didn’t have the purchase price immediately available, but King said similar models typically cost about $150,000.

Currently, the Nashville Police Department uses a similar aerostat. The agency uses when it has large crowds in town, concerts, sporting events and the state fair, King said, as well as during natural disasters.

“Basically it’s looking at areas of interest,” he said.

Other possible uses include monitoring prison facilities and keeping contraband out, according to King.

On Wednesday, King trained employees from the Lebanon and Warren County Correctional facilities at the UAS complex in Springfield.

“It’s going to be a game changer for them,” King said. “They just increased, expanded their situational awareness several miles versus 600 or 700 feet.”

The Ohio Department of Correction and Rehabilitation is still in the discussion phases of using the blimp drone, spokeswoman Joe Ellen Smith said

“We are undergoing an operation assessment with the two facilities to possibly use it in the future,” Smith said.