Legislature eyes futuristic ‘highway in the sky’

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Michigan’s capitol building in Lansing. Image: Brian Charles Watson

By Jack Falinski

Capital News Service

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a … flying car?

Michigan Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing said although that type of airborne craft currently isn’t in the sky, it could be very soon.

“It’s not insane to think that in 10 years you could have a vehicle that transports you in the air between Lansing and Mackinaw City,” Hertel said.

The Democratic legislator, alongside Republican Sen. Aric Nesbitt of Lawton, introduced bills that would establish an “Advanced Air Mobility Study Committee” to review current laws that affect the aeronautics industry.

The legislation recently passed the Senate by a 95-37 vote. It now sits in the House Transportation Committee.

“Trying to bring groups together to talk about these vehicles — they may sound fanciful, the technology is moving in this direction — I think it’s important to have conversations about the future of aeronautics and the future of family travel,” Hertel said.

Additionally, the bills would prevent a county, city, village or township from enacting ordinances centered around the ownership and operation of such vehicles.

“We don’t have one set of rules for air travel by different municipalities,” Hertel said. “We set those up by larger entities like a state.”

However, he said local governments should have a say in the decision process, which is why they are represented in the makeup of the proposed committee.

Sean Hammond, a legislative associate at the Michigan Townships Association, said that although local representatives would make up part of the committee, the association opposes the bills.

“These automated flying vehicles don’t exist yet,” Hammond said. “We’re preempting (local governments) before any recommendations come out from this (committee).”

This isn’t the first time a “highway in the sky” has come up in 2022.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a project focused on developing an air mobility corridor for commercial drones and other flying vehicles.

Researchers are studying the project in three areas of the state, including in Southeast Michigan and along an international crossing between the state and Ontario, Canada.

Bryan Budds, the deputy administrator for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Aeronautics, said a goal of the project is to learn and develop what money can buy. That includes aerial communication technology and facilities that can store and launch drones and other hovercraft.

Outside of the capital investment, Budds said the project will also look into other potential effects of the industry, such as noise and economic impact.

Other than potential radar systems that act as traffic control sites on top of existing towers, Michigan residents probably wouldn’t notice anything different as the corridor progresses, except for more drones in the sky, he said.

Some drones involved in the project will be used commercially, delivering small packages directly to people’s front steps.

But as the project continues, Budds said it could give insight and direction to flying cars carrying people and goods, also known as electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.

“This is laying the groundwork for formal preparation for those future aircraft,” Budds said.

Casie Ocaña, the vice president of marketing for Airspace Link, a Detroit-based drone technology start-up company that is a project partner, said much of what her company has been doing is researching rules and routes for drone air travel in Michigan under Federal Aviation Administration oversight.

She described that effort as trying to create “Google Maps for the sky.”

When it comes to safety and privacy, Ocaña said drones don’t pose a threat to people, but their presence in the sky will be a cultural shift that will take time to adjust to.

She said her team educates people on the purpose of drones, understanding that the technology may feel intrusive but can serve a greater purpose in the state’s supply chain.

“It’s similar to when everyone had horses, and then the first car drove by,” she said. “It was loud and it freaked you out and it didn’t feel safe. It’s just that culture shift that needs to happen because the benefits far outweigh any concerns, and a lot of these concerns are unfounded.”

Budds said that even if the proposed air corridor advances, it could take years before drones regularly deliver packages to homes.

As for flying cars, he said, “The full-on Jetsons mentality might be a little further off.”

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