Virginia’s R&D assets, top-ranked education system, varied geography for testing, and proximity to Washington, D.C. and major defense contractors set the foundation for success in Virginia for companies in the unmanned systems industry.
Virginia is already home to a collection of assets that are attractive to companies operating in the rapidly evolving unmanned systems industry. Virginia houses an FAA-designated test range, varied testing environments, including a Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight corridor, and university and federal centers engaged in cutting-edge industry R&D.
Virginia has recently been selected as one of the 10 program applicants to participate in the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program. Six Virginia counties - Buckingham, Cumberland, Loudoun, Montgomery, Prince Edward and, Wise - participated in the proposal. Day-to-day operations of the program in Virginia will be managed by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP). Corporate partners joining Virginia include Project Wing, Intel, AT&T, Airbus Aerial, State Farm, Dominion Energy, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and HAZON Solutions.
Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP)
Housed at Virginia Tech, MAAP is an FAA-designated test site for unmanned aircraft systems. MAAP focuses on foundational technologies and high-value operations that will enable the efficient use of unmanned aircraft for a broad range of applications. Key areas of focus include:
- Airworthiness Certification
- Operations Over People
- Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) –includes access to a radar-equipped, 5,000-square-mile “Beyond the Horizons” test range in Central Virginia, which allows flights up to 7,000 feet AGL in a rural area full of critical infrastructure such as pipelines, powerlines, railroads, and highways
- UAS Communications
Virginia Tech is also home to the Virginia Tech Drone Park, where students, researchers, faculty, staff, or university affiliates can safely operate UAS without the constraints of registrations, certifications, or specialized training. The Drone Park is one of the tallest netted facilities of its kind and features nearly 3 million cubic feet of flight space.
NASA Langley is focused on the safe incorporation of drones into the airspace and has conducted testing to assess how well autonomous craft avoid structures, each other, and other hazards at low altitudes. Testing is being performed on a small flight range on Langley’s property, not far from CERTAIN - City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation - which mimics an urban environment where drones can be monitored while safely flying between buildings and over streets with pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
NASA Langley also houses the Autonomy Incubator — a group of multi-disciplinary scientists, engineers, and student interns that study and research autonomy skills that will contribute expertise across NASA missions and other applications where autonomous systems can be applied.
Home to NASA Wallops Flight Facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, is also home to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (MARS UAS) Airfield, which features:
- Runway that measures 3,000 feet long x 75 feet wide
- Concrete pad that measures 130 feet by 120 feet and is rated to 5,000 psi for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) operations
- Airfield surrounded by 75 square nautical miles of restricted airspace available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to unlimited altitude.
- Hangar planned for construction will be 90 feet by 50 feet, with a 70-foot-tall rollup door, lab space, and communications and broadband connectivity
Virginia is home to a number of companies at the forefront of self-driving technology. Advanced driverless technologies are being developed at companies like Torc Robotics (Blacksburg) and Perrone Robotics (Crozet) and are part of the advanced unmanned ecosystem in Virginia today.
Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) & Virginia Automated Corridors (VAC)
VTTI is the 2nd-largest university-level transportation institute in the U.S. and operates the Virginia Automated Corridors (VAC) Initiative in partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Transurban, and HERE Technologies, a leader in automotive mapping technology. The VAC offers automated vehicle developers the opportunity to test their technologies on Virginia roads covering more than 70 miles of interstates and arterials in Northern Virginia, including Interstates 66, 495, and 95, as well as state routes 29 and 50. The corridors also include two test-track environments - the Virginia Smart Road, located on-site at the Transportation Institute, and the Virginia International Raceway in Southern Virginia.
Virginia’s geographic position on the East Coast provides access to a wide variety of waters for testing – from marshes and shallow rivers to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. An advanced maritime, naval, and shipbuilding environment in eastern Virginia and Hampton Roads provides a deep base of knowledge in water-based industries not seen in many locations.
One example is the Navy’s Combatant Craft Division (CCD) based in Little Creek, Virginia, which is the DoD's Center for Excellence for manned and unmanned boats and combatant craft total systems engineering. Additional resources can be found in maritime testing at Wallops Island.
Virginia Tech’s Deep-X Team is a finalist in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE Competition, which challenges teams to develop technology for mapping the ocean faster and with more autonomy than is possible with today’s systems.
Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (MARS UAS) Airfield
Home to the 2nd-highest concentration of technology workers in the country and over 24,000 doctoral scientists and engineers, in Virginia a company will find a skilled workforce ready for the jobs being created in emerging technology industries (CyberStates, 2019).
Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
Training the Future Unmanned Systems Workforce
In addition to traditional engineering programs found at Virginia’s universities, a number of university programs in Virginia offer a specialization in unmanned systems.
Geospatial Technician Education — Unmanned Aircraft Systems (GeoTEd-UAS)
GeoTEd-UAS is supported by a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) grant to develop and implement academic courses and pathways to prepare small UAS operations technicians (UASOT) and to develop a student pathway into UAS careers. The project team includes the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC), Thomas Nelson Community College, Mountain Empire Community College, Virginia Tech, and the Virginia Community College System (VCCS).
Virginia University Programs
George Mason University
- The Volgenau School of Engineering research centers include the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research and the Center for Configuration Analytics and Automation.
- The Autonomous Robotics Laboratory is a collective effort among seven faculty in the department of computer science for collaborative research in a variety of topics involving robotics, computer vision, and networks.
James Madison University (JMU)
- The JMU Drone Challenge project was created as an interdisciplinary collaborative effort between seven majors, four professors, and a variety of off-campus organizations. The group hopes to use design thinking and drone technology to come up with innovative solutions to complex global problems.
- JMU X-Labs studies issues in emerging technologies with students from over 35 different majors working directly with client partners. In spring 2015, JMU X-Labs offered the first undergraduate drone course in Virginia. This has continued into multiple iterations of collaborative interdisciplinary programs and events shared across the Commonwealth, including the Unmanned Systems for Virginia Project focusing on ecological research.
Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics trains students for employment as UAS operators or mechanics by offering a Bachelor of Science in aviation maintenance: unmanned aerial systems and a Bachelor of Science in aeronautics: unmanned aerial systems degree programs.
Old Dominion University (ODU)
ODU’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology houses the Unmanned and Autonomous Vehicle Laboratory that was created in fall 2015 to support ongoing work in ground and flight-based unmanned and autonomous vehicle design.
At the Virginia Modeling Analysis & Simulation Center, a research focus is virtual environments and robotics and has included work with the Naval Surface Warfare Center to partner in the Navy's unmanned surface vehicle (USV) research.
University of Virginia (UVA)
- The Link Lab, a Center of Excellence in cyber-physical systems (CPS) conducts research into autonomous vehicles and robotics.
- UVA Engineering enrolled nearly 2,850 undergraduate students and 1,050 graduate students in 2018-2019. Thirty-three percent are women, compared to 21% nationally, making it the top university in the country among states' flagship universities in terms of the proportion of women earning engineering degrees.
- UVA Engineering is focusing on the intersection of cyber-physical systems, including research into the security of unmanned systems from cyber threats.
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)
- The VCU UAV lab is conducting cutting-edge research on flight control systems (autopilots) and data payload systems for these types of applications.
- The VCU School of Engineering enrolls over 1,700 undergraduate and nearly 250 graduate students and offers degrees in biomedical engineering, chemical and life science engineering, computer engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical and nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, and, in conjunction with the School of Business, a master’s degree in computer and information systems security.
- The Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS) was established in 2012 and is an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center involving Brigham Young University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Virginia Tech, and the University of Michigan. The Center is the only National Science Foundation-funded unmanned aircraft research center.
- Autonomous Systems and Control Laboratory.
- Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
- The Virginia Tech College of Engineering offers 14 undergraduate degree-granting engineering majors, 16 doctoral, and 19 master's programs in 18 areas of study. During the fall of 2019 11,185 undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled.
Virginia’s Community Colleges
At the community college level, a number of colleges offer UMS programs:
- Mountain Empire Community College has coursework available in UAS operations and is developing the Virginia Community College System’s first unmanned aerial systems (UAS) associate degree program.
- New River Community College offers an sUAS Remote Pilot Ground School course.
- Piedmont Virginia Community College has courses designed for sUAS for emergency services and public safety use.
- Germanna Community College offers a drone-UAV FAA pilot class.
Bill Irby Senior VP & General Manager, Textron Systems
The grand opening of a larger Unmanned Systems Service & Support Center is important to us because the UAS industry is growing – and we are excited to expand our location to accommodate this growth. With this expansion, we have the opportunity to train more operators, maintain additional UAS and continue our research on integrating UAS into national airspace.
Consistently ranked as one of the top states for business, Virginia offers an environment where promising technologies and the companies that support them will find success.
Virginia offers a welcoming climate for companies and is recognized as a top-ranked state for business, coming in at No. 1 by CNBC and No. 4 by Forbes.com in their annual best states for business rankings.
- Virginia's Center of Excellence for Unmanned Systems, part of the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), serves as a "one-stop shop" for information and assistance for the industry.
- Virginia does not impose additional regulation on the industry beyond federal regulations.
- Virginia was the first state to pass legislation allowing delivery robots to operate on sidewalks and crosswalks.
- The Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia (USAV) is a non-profit coalition focused on promoting a legal and regulatory framework that supports innovation, collaboration, and growth in the unmanned systems industry.
- AUVSI is headquartered in Arlington with active chapters in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, and Southwest Virginia.