Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, the once beautiful but now abandoned train station that Ford is rehabilitating into an innovation and technology hub, is about to be swarmed by drones.

The Ford subsidiary that operates the train station, Michigan Central, announced today that it’s teaming up with the state’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) to test out the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAM), or drones, to deliver medicine, food, and other small items to nearby residents.

The drone delivery testing will take place in what’s being called Detroit’s Advanced Aerial Innovation Region, an area within a three-mile radius of Michigan Central Station in which drones can conduct deliveries to nearby homes and apartment buildings or perform other tasks like building inspections.

The ultimate goal is to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that allows drone operators to fly further distances and beyond visual sight lines. But it’s also to open up a new line of revenue for Ford and its partners in what is projected to be a $50 billion industry by 2030.

“We think about it at the intersection of mobility and society,” Carolina Pluszczynski, Michigan Central’s chief operating officer, said in an interview with The Verge. “What I mean by that is real world problems, real world solutions in a real world environment.”

Michigan Central Station opened its doors in 1913 as a soaring 18-story beaux-arts masterpiece and a symbol of Detroit’s once commanding status as Motor City, home to the most innovative companies in the world. But the auto industry’s slow decline in the ’60s and ’70s as well as the shameful history of racial divide, white flight, inequity, and lack of public investment, left Michigan Central Station — and the city as a whole — a shadow of its former self.

Ford bought the crumbling train station in 2018 as a hub for its future mobility ventures — think self-driving cars, software and connected technologies, and of course, drones. Earlier this year, the company reopened an adjacent building, renamed Newlab, that will serve as a space for automotive startups working on new technologies dedicated to transportation. Ford has said it plans on moving thousands of employees to the rehabbed buildings starting next year.

The drone experiment will be one of the first to test out the company’s thesis about how collaborative environments can breed new, lucrative services rooted in data analysis and technological innovation. In addition to Michigan Central, MDOT, and Newlab, the drone deliveries will also bring in a cloud-based software provider called Airspace Link, which has FAA approval for drone testing. Pluszczynski called Airspace Link “the Google Maps of the air.”

Michigan Central has yet to select drone operators for its two-year pilot, but Pluszczynski expects the first use cases to involve prescription drug deliveries or the transportation of medical supplies.

“We are providing the digital [and] physical infrastructure,” she said. “We’re putting the controls in place with the state to control that airspace. And then Airspace Link will be there, and Newlab will attract the use cases.”

Toward the larger goal of enabling drone operators to fly beyond the line of sight — a huge lift considering the FAA needs to approve it — Pluszczynski said the hope is that MDOT can help collect the data that’s needed to help bolster their case.

Experts say that drone operations beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of a remote pilot have the potential to open the door to longer flights, new markets, and fewer restrictions on ground personnel. And if drone delivery is ever going to become a viable business, operators need to be able to win these types of approvals.

“I think if drones are ever going to become pervasive, we need to have those policies in place,” Pluszczynski said.

Ford, through Michigan Central, is testing waters in which other companies, including UPS, FedEx, Amazon, Google, and others, have been treading for years. And Ford won’t have any exclusivity of any of the potential businesses that emerge from the new program.

Drone deliveries are still only available in a handful of small communities, with limited service areas and a relatively tiny list of items available. The slowness of the approval process, and the missteps of the companies involved, have fed skepticism that drone delivery is another one of those promised futures that will never come to pass.

But Pluszczynski said there’s still an opportunity, as long as drone operators can prove they are serving a “critical need.”

“Nobody’s ever tried to create this public private partnership and bring all these entities together in a neutral way to advance technologies,” she said. “And so it’s challenging, but I feel like we have momentum.”

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