OHIO team competes in statewide FlyOhio Vertiport Challenge

Published: October 20, 2021 Author: Chloe Musick

An interdisciplinary team of four undergraduate students recently competed in the FlyOhio Vertiport Innovation Challenge in collaboration with industry, government, education and community partners on Oct. 1-8, 2021. 

The team was comprised of Blake Dowalter, a student in civil engineering; Lauren Parrell, a student in health services administration; Neil Bateman, a student in aviation flight; and Michael Variny, a student in mechanical engineering. This interdisciplinary team was handpicked by faculty collaborators in the College of Health Sciences and Professions and the Russ College of Engineering and Technology due to each student’s academic perspective and excellence.

“In the professional world, people need to work across disciplines to address problems and create solutions, so opportunities like this for students to gain that type of experience are important and valuable for all involved,” said Cory Cronin, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Health Sciences and Professions.

The student group was led by a faculty advisory team including Jay Wilhelm, Ph.D., in mechanical engineering, Dr. Sam Khoury, Ph.D., in civil engineering, Paul Benedict as executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, and Cronin in the College of Health Sciences and Professions. The team was coached by Kamal Khouri, vice president and general manager automotive business line at GlobalFoundries. Scott Miller, associate dean for industry partnerships for the Russ College, coordinated the student team, faculty advisory team and coach. 

FlyOhio Vertiport Challenge

FlyOhio, a division of the Ohio Department of Transportation, seeks to rapidly advance the widespread use of vertical takeoff and landing vehicles in the Ohio airspace. FlyOhio and the Cincinnati Innovation District collaborated to support Ohio’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) ecosystem by engaging students from universities and colleges across the state in a one-week challenge, the FlyOhio Vertiport Challenge, focused on accelerating Ohio’s AAM system.

AAM aims to transform transportation alternatives to include advancements in personal air vehicle development, air traffic management and infrastructure. As part of the Vertiport Challenge, student teams across the state of Ohio were required to develop a business plan for an equitable network of safe vertiports in their region. Vertiports are small airports for advanced aerial vehicles, including unpiloted drones or piloted aircraft. 

The challenge is closely aligned with the NASA National Advanced Air Mobility Campaign, which splits the implementation of vertiports into three phases over the next 30 years. Teams were asked to design their business plan using one of the three phases with a specific focus on one of the two primary use cases for this technology: cargo and medical transport. The OHIO team, which represents the Southeast Ohio region, chose to address the medical transport use case implemented in phase one.

“We had a unique opportunity compared to other teams. Athens County and southeast Ohio in general is very rural. In our presentation, we researched how vertiports could best be applied in rural regions instead of in cities,” said Dowalter, the civil engineering major.

The team chose to focus on the phase one implementation of a vertiport network to address the immediate need for expanded healthcare transportation services for prescription delivery in rural Ohio. They explained that the roads in Athens County often require maintenance but lack the budget to support the required work. This explanation led them to the development of their plan to deliver both routine and emergency medical prescriptions by drones. 

Their vision suggested that vertiports could be built upon aviation infrastructure that is already in place across the state but no longer in use. By creating a viable business plan, the OHIO team demonstrated that its plan could be implemented immediately, saving time, resources, and lives.

The intersection of healthcare and technology

The team featured students from both the College of Health Sciences and Professions and the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, which allowed the team to focus on the technological implementation alongside the healthcare accessibility implications of the proposal.

“The field of health care has a wide range of issues and challenges that would benefit from interdisciplinary attention. Technological advancements in other fields may have the potential to help address some of these health care issues, and it’s worthwhile to pay attention to those opportunities,” Cronin said.

The group opened their presentation with a hypothetical scenario of a child suffering from an allergic reaction without an EpiPen on hand. They used this scenario to explain that convenient access to healthcare is lacking in the southeast Ohio region due to its rurality, which can sometimes have life-altering consequences. The team took care to ensure that their approach improved equitable access to healthcare, a problem that currently affects residents of this region.

“We focused on how we can make the health of the area better and save lives. Our idea was that the drones would get a signal from a 911 operator and then get to the scene with an emergency item, like an EpiPen or a defibrillator, faster than an EMT. We found that in rural areas it takes on average 14 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, and that is a very long time,” said Parrell, a senior in health services administration.

Parrell’s experience as a student in the College of Health Sciences and Professions offered valuable insight into the competition, which was balanced by the knowledge of the technological implementation for the project from the students from the Russ College.

“The breadth of knowledge [the] Ohio University [team] assembled was impressive. Over and over, questions came up about practicality, cost and design that I simply had no idea where to find. Our team could dig up anything — and we did,” said Bateman, the aviation flight major.

Flight plans for the future

While the OHIO team did not advance in the competition, the viability of their concept sparked ideas for continuing research. Additionally, the students were able to compete as an interdisciplinary team of four students, who had never met before the week-long competition.

“Personally, I have big dreams and this project is all about dreaming big in a realistic manner. Our final product helped give me a boost of confidence that I can work well in a group of people I’ve never met and in a field I do not have a lot of background knowledge on. This also reassures me that seemingly unrealistic things can happen,” said mechanical engineering major Variny. 

The faculty advisory team, including Khoury and Wilhelm, saw potential in the business plan as well.

“I really enjoyed the enthusiasm and innovation the students brought to this challenge. They were able, in a very short amount of time, to bring together various thoughts and ideas and articulate them in a very meaningful and well-reasoned presentation,” Khoury said.

The conclusion of this competition points to the present need of advanced air mobility and the practicality of its implementation. As OHIO students continue to research use cases for this technology, the future of advanced air mobility will continue to expand.

According to Miller, the advanced air mobility industry “has to get students interested in jobs that do not exist right now” to meet the employment needs caused by the rapid growth of this new branch of the aviation industry. Students who invest their time will experience this cutting-edge, innovative and ever-growing industry firsthand. 

As Dowalter, Parrell, Bateman, and Variny continue their education at Ohio University, they will continue to reflect on the impact of this experience with hopes that one day their idea will take to the skies.

“Although we did not get the desired outcome, this was an incredible experience. I highly recommend students going after this challenge next year,” Parrell said “I got to use critical thinking skills and apply knowledge that I have learned. Our idea was impactful, and we put a lot of work into this. Although it was a lot of work, this project was a great experience.”