Special Reports

The drone industry is booming in Central New York

A military presence in Syracuse and a grant funding program have helped companies start up and thrive.

The military presence at Syracuse Hancock International Airport has helped the drone industry grow in Central New York.

The military presence at Syracuse Hancock International Airport has helped the drone industry grow in Central New York. Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

While much of the discussion around the Central New York economy has been centered on semiconductor giant Micron opening a new plant outside of Syracuse, the unmanned aerial system, or drone, industry and the growing advanced air mobility industry have been cementing themselves as key parts of the region’s economic ecosystem.

A drone corridor has emerged with the placement of one of seven Federal Aviation Administration designated facilities known as UAS test sites for drones in Oneida County. Sprouting up near the decade-old test site is a state-funded business accelerator program for drone companies and a growing number of educational initiatives to support the growing industry. “New York state is the place to be for what is next in aviation,” said Kara Jones, director of Genius NY, the accelerator program based in Syracuse.

At the heart of the corridor is the test site at Griffiss International Airport in Rome. The 240-square-mile test area was originally just a 50-mile corridor between Griffiss and Syracuse Hancock International Airport. Now, the larger facility is overseen by NUAIR, a nonprofit, founded to develop the test site and industry in New York. NUAIR also launched the Center for Excellence at the Syracuse airport to manage the expanded test area and develop new economic, safety and regulatory models for the region, and to work with national and international clients.

There is also a military presence at Syracuse Hancock, drone programs run by Le Moyne College and Syracuse public schools, as well as a growing corporate base.

Funding has been a huge catalyst for the corridor’s growth. Genius NY, started in 2017 and seeded by $5 million annually in Empire State Development funds, has funded seven cohorts of five drone-related companies. The companies were selected in a competition with the grand prize winner receiving $1 million and the other four receiving $500,000 each. During a one-year residency in Syracuse, companies receive mentorship and business development assistance from the program.

“They partner with each other,” she told City & State. “Since we are focused on a niche industry, there is a lot of collaboration.”

Jones said about 40% of the companies that have gone through the Genius NY program have stayed in Central New York, with those that depart the region continuing to work with those that stay. She credited the FAA test site for giving the region its appeal with drone companies, as well as an existing aviation industry. The presence of the military at Syracuse Hancock, namely the 174th Attack Wing of the New York Air National Guard, have played a part, according to Jones. She said many companies that apply for the Genius NY program are attracted to a “synergy” in the region.

Drone Zones

The drone industry is currently being utilized by both the government and private sectors in a number of ways, including on several upcoming programs. Here’s a closer look at how drones are being put to use.

Infrastructure: Inspection of bridges, utility and gas lines, pipelines, canals, roadways and dams. A growing use will be creating 3D models of infrastructure to compare year-over-year inspections and to track issues.

Land surveying: Providing detailed mapping of land areas, detection of mineral deposits and other issues not easily seen.

Agriculture: Survey seeding work and allowing farmers to better check on crops without traveling over entire farms.

Public safety: Crowd control, fire control, monitoring of traffic patterns and surveying accident scenes

Emergency management: Surveying of floods, wildfires and other disasters; assistance in rescue and recovery efforts after a natural disaster; to help search teams more safely inspect disaster scenes.

Water management: Surveying of rivers and lakes for issues, including blue algae, and mapping of bodies of water.

Clean energy: Mapping, planning and ongoing maintenance inspections of solar farms and wind farms.

Health care: Potential use in shipping medicine to people outside SUNY Upstate Hospital and potential future use in transporting various tests from SUNY Upstate Hospital’s Syracuse location to a test center about an hour away.

Supply chain: Moving cargo to and from airports; taking traffic off Central New York highways.

Ken Stewart, president of NUAIR, said a key part of the Center of Excellence program is growing the advanced air mobility industry, which relies on larger drones that could be used for cargo movement and eventually as air taxis, allowing for longer flight paths. The center is also looking at the safety aspects and demonstrating how these larger drone flights can be safely integrated among other aircraft. Stewart said that even the placement of Micron in the region will be a key part of the sector’s growth. He noted that moving Micron shipments by air to the airport would reduce traffic congestion in the region and speed up the supply chain.

A move to airborne deliveries still requires federal regulation, Trevor Woods, executive director of the FAA’s test site in North Dakota, told City & State. Woods said the industry is currently waiting on proposed FAA rules for larger drone usage and that he expects the approval process to take several years. Air taxis are another key growth area, he said, citing Manhattan as a likely spot once the technology is implemented.

NUAIR is also assisting state agencies with ways to incorporate drone technology into their work. “The more adoption by state agencies, the more they save the dollars they are given,” Stewart said. For example, drone use for inspection of the state’s 17,700 bridges would save an estimated $1.35 billion annually, according to NUAIR, which has worked with the New York Power Authority, the state Canal Corp. and Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. NUAIR is also working with Utah on drone issues, Saudi Arabia on advanced air mobility programs and international companies in the sector, many of which are interested in working in New York.

The Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Creativity at Le Moyne College has been offering a drone pilot education program that has been cited as a key part of the local ecosystem. Doug Hill, director of the Maker Institute at Le Moyne, said the program already allows students to obtain Part 107 training needed for drone piloting, with further programs being developed to allow for advanced training certification in drone piloting and training in drone engineering and technology. Part of this includes the required 20 hours of flight training, which Hill said has been used to assist public and private projects in the region.

Drone sensor company ResilienX, among the firms that stayed in Syracuse after being seeded in 2019 by the Genius NY program, has worked with private companies and had government contracts, including with NASA, the Air Force, Navy and FAA. Ryan Pleskach, the company’s co-founder and CEO, told City & State he credits Genius NY as being an important part of the tech firm’s growth. He said the biggest aspect was the mentorship, both during the cohort year and since, as being the best part of the program and its impact on his company.

He said that with the accelerator’s eighth cohort coming up, he can see the overall economic impact as the drone corridor continues to grow. “The progress and the seeds that were planted eight years ago,” he added, “are starting to bear fruit.”