Small Town USA is a Hotbed of Drone Innovation

When it comes to acquiring drones, it’s rarely a state’s big cities that establish themselves as pioneers.  One reason?  The presence of nearby airports.  Federal regulations prohibit drone flying within 5 miles of a major airport and many big city officials are leery of creating havoc for air traffic controllers by authorizing the use of unmanned aircraft that might wander into the flight path of small prop planes – or worse, a commercial jetliner.

Tennessee, which ranks 29th on a list of US states with active UAV programs, is a good example of how a drone industry actually comes into being.  Big cities like Nashville or Knoxville, TN – each with major national airports – have, until recently, largely steered clear of the industry.  Instead, it’s been left to nearby smaller towns and cities to begin pioneering drone development on behalf of the state as a whole.

Take Murfreesboro, TN, a town of roughly 70,000 people located about 35 miles southeast of Nashville.  Once heralded as the “most livable city in Tennessee,” Murfreesboro was also the first in the state to begin testing the utility of drones.  The experiment started in July 2014, when Tennessee Middle State University acquired a single drone, strictly for research purposes.  The effort was closely watched by city officials and in 2015,  Murfreesboro applied to the FAA for approval to purchase and fly its own small drone.

Initially, the FAA approved the city’s application for training purposes only.  A single city official – technically employed as a “network technician” – was permitted to fly the craft, but only in restricted airspace.  The FAA’s initial authorization for the city’s drone program included a detailed list of no-fly zones and prohibited practices.  It was a whopping 22 pages long.  But once the city demonstrated its ability to manage the aircraft safely, it began using the drone for land surveying,  Everything else was off limits.

A year later, the federal government formally approved drones for commercial and recreational use nationwide, subject to formal training and licensing requirements. Murfreesboro soon began adding new aerial missions, including inspecting water towers and mapping traffic accident scenes.  Local police and fire rescue began acquiring their own drones.  Progress since then has been slow, but steady.

Over the years, as Murfreesboro’s drone fleet has continued to grow, the city has found a special niche with “search and rescue” operations.

Last year, Murfreesboro police were able to find an elderly man with dementia who’d wandered off from his family home. His wife feared for the worst when she’d discovered he was missing.

But the local police, after failing to find him in the immediate vicinity, sent in a pair of drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras to conduct a search of nearby woods; the aircraft’s infrared cameras discovered him under a group of trees, based on his heat signature alone, and he was returned safely to his home.

Other small towns in Tennessee have followed Murfreesboro’s lead, sometimes banding together into “Mutual Aid Associations” across county – and even state – lines to share their drone resources freely.  Last February,  Hamilton County Emergency Management crews in Hamilton County received a call for help from fire department officials in Chattanooga and immediately deployed two drones to help search for a missing child.  The drones flew in grid patterns for two hours until one of the aircraft picked up the heat signature of the child who was unconscious and lying in the fetal position. Officials rushed the child to a hospital in time to save her.

Undoubtedly, Tennessee could do a lot more as a state to promote the use of drones.  Other states, including neighboring North Carolina, have established state-level task forces to push their drone industry along.  Tennessee still doesn’t have one.  The state also lacks a drone “sandbox” where drone companies could test their prototypes and begin conducting pilot commercial operations in real estate, construction and agriculture, among other industries.  Many other states have such test centers in place

Fortunately, MSTU, the place where it all began nearly a decade ago, is still striving to fill the void.  Graduates of the university’s B.A. program in drone education have begun developing commercial drone applications in conjunction with local industries.  The university’s Digital Agricultural Center, founded in 2021, is focusing on the development of state-of-the-art precision agriculture techniques to increase farm yields and enhance sustainability.  This year, high school students throughout Tennessee, are being invited to MSTU to gain exposure to a wide array of career fields in the drone industry.

And it’s not just civilians that are looking to MSTU for technology leadership.  As far back as 2012,  the Pentagon has viewed the MSTU as a staging area for cutting-edge research into drone warfare applications, including the U.S. Army’s “Raven” aircraft which coordinates air and ground operations by unmanned vehicles.  As drones begin to occupy center stage in the Ukraine war especially, the Pentagon is looking to institutes like MSTU to serve as full-fledged defense industry laboratories.

Murfreesboro, while barely known outside of Tennessee, has always enjoyed an exalted status among natives.  In the 1990s, it was voted the “Most Livable Town in Tennessee.”  It’s also been ranked in the top 1% of US cities for its “good governance” policies.  But thanks to its bold decision to acquire UAVs nearly a decade ago, the city’s on its way to earning another accolade:  national drone pioneer.

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