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First Michigan airport approved by FAA for drone testing

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Got a drone you want to test? 

Now you’ve got a place in Michigan to do just that, whether the drone is for military, commercial or academic use.  

“There are no other places in Michigan that are doing this,” says Steve Smigelski, manager of the Alpena County Regional Airport.

The FAA just approved the airport as a drone test site, in part because of its location.

“One of the biggest things that we’ve got going for us, beside the uncongested airspace, is we have large areas with no houses,” says Smigelski.

“So even though they’re testing small drones, in the event it were to catastrophically fail, there’s no worry about it hitting somebody’s house.”

The FAA requires approved airports to have a certain level of tracking capability, he says, so regulators can keep an eye on certain tests or send out a “chase plane” if needed.

That’s according to Smigelski, who says they’ve already got companies interested in using the airport to test new drone applications.

“[One company has a drone] that inspects silos for farmers. It actually flies up the side with a set of wheels to do fine inspections, or it can fly away and do farther inspections. And it records everything so you can see what’s going on.”   

Local officials are hoping Alpena’s new drone-testing ability gets companies interested in relocating to the area. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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