In early January, hundreds of drivers were stranded in snowy conditions on Interstate 95 for more than 24 hours. Some were low on gas. Some didn't have food. All were stuck until the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) could clear the blockages.
But what if drones could have delivered care packages to motorists? What if VDOT had the ability to deploy autonomous plows? What if transportation of goods and people wasn't limited to the existing highways, railways and shipping routes?
These are the big "what ifs" being tackled by the Virginia Institute for Spaceflight & Autonomy (VISA) at Old Dominion University, launched in 2019 to explore the untapped potential for spaceflight and autonomous systems in Hampton Roads and the commonwealth.
VISA is capitalizing on Hampton Roads' strategic advantages. "The commonwealth and Southeast Virginia are blessed with unique assets for aerospace - two NASA facilities, a huge Department of Defense presence, a geographical ecosystem with both urban centers and rural areas, big inland bay ports and proximity to Washington, D.C.," said David Bowles, executive director for VISA. "We're looking to leverage those assets to grow the economy, develop talent and foster innovation."
Experts in the field imagine a future where autonomous systems can take on jobs traditionally considered dull, dirty or dangerous. Unmanned vehicles could perform inspections, maintenance and surveillance for some of the region's biggest industries, from the Port of Virginia to the offshore wind turbines in the Atlantic.
As a Research 1-classified institution, ODU offers VISA access to experts in disciplines necessary to developing autonomous solutions, including modeling and simulation, cybersecurity, engineering, maritime and supply chain management, and more.
The development and integration of autonomous systems will happen, Bowles said, and Hampton Roads should lead the charge. "We can sit on the sidelines and watch it happen in other places, or we can help drive it and reap the benefits from an economic and educational standpoint," he said.
This year, VISA will work on two state-funded projects designed to imagine the possibilities for autonomous systems, such as air drones or waterborne vehicles, in Hampton Roads.
In December 2021, VISA received $100,000 from GO Virginia to conduct a study of air, ground and water routes to identify how unmanned systems could expedite the transport of goods, services and travelers. They'll also work with ODU's Dragas Center for Economic Analysis & Policy to evaluate the potential economic impact of investing in autonomous systems.
To conceptualize a future in which unmanned vehicles could bypass existing gridlock, VISA will convene focus groups including representatives from relevant industries, federal facilities, local government and the military.
"I've found 'build it and they will come' only works in the movies," Bowles said. "You've got to have buy-in, and the solutions have to work for everyone."
They'll look at the notorious pinch points that slow transportation - particularly bridges and tunnels - and imagine ways to go over, under or around. Through the process, they may also identify scenarios where technology could advance ahead of government regulation, and how to ensure a safe automated future.
"As we began thinking about the key connection points we have here, we arrived at two questions. First, are there underutilized places that could relieve some of the issues in tourism, travel and moving goods?" said John Costulis, deputy director of VISA. "Second, should we even be thinking this way, or should we be thinking from a clean sheet of paper?"
The project complements VISA's partnership with the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation (VIPC) Unmanned Systems Center, which is finalizing a Regional Autonomous Systems Strategic playbook that will help guide Hampton Roads on next steps.
"The development of this type of plan is critical to the operation, and integration of autonomous systems throughout Hampton Roads and other regions of Virginia," said Tracy Tynan, director for the Virginia Unmanned Systems Center at CIT-VIPC. "ODU-VISA are valuable partners in the Hampton Roads region that help industry, government and academic entities contribute to the growth and development of the autonomous systems sector."
The grant was made possible with matching funding from the cities of Hampton and Norfolk, in addition to the support of Reinvent Hampton Roads, which administers the GO Virginia grant opportunities for the region. "The results of the planning grant will be essential to leverage research, innovation and workforce support for industry partners across a broad spectrum of domains, including the maritime ecosystem," said Jim Spore, president and CEO of Reinvent Hampton Roads.
Testing the Waters
VISA's work is directly connected to ODU's recently announced Maritime Initiative, emphasizing the University's role as a leader in the region to build upon, leverage and coordinate maritime research and innovation. The effort will align the University's existing resources confronting these issues, including VISA and the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (IIE) and its OpenSeas Technology Innovation Hub, focused on bringing partners in business, industry and government together to identify problems and clear the way for growth in the "blue economy." In November, the University released a report by TEConomy Partners LLC, identifying strategic areas where investment could capitalize on the region's greatest natural asset: water.
The report noted Hampton Roads has the potential to become a national hub for integrated autonomous systems, which could solve market needs for the Navy, offshore wind operations and activities related to the Port of Virginia.
Working closely with the city of Norfolk, VISA and OpenSeas will take an important step in that development with the renovation of a public boat ramp to become a test site for unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). Through the Port City Communities Revitalization grant program, the General Assembly allocated $394,000 for the city to renovate the nearly five-acre Willoughby Boat Ramp to create a dedicated testing area.
"It is natural for VISA, OpenSeas and the city of Norfolk to partner on this autonomous systems testing opportunity," said Nancy Grden, executive director for the Hampton Roads Maritime Collaboration for Growth and Innovation and associate vice president for IIE. "Our region has a unique mix of air, land, sea and space testing and development spaces that, when packaged together, are essential for innovation and new company growth in the maritime ecosystem."
Providing access for testing is expected to encourage the growth of USV/UUV companies in Hampton Roads, but OpenSeas will serve as the first user, leasing the future site for commercial and academic testing of unmanned vehicles. OpenSeas will also help manage and market the test site to others. On an average weekday, observers might see an unmanned chase boat weaving and bobbing through a course of cones on the water or venturing 27 nautical miles to the wind turbine towers. In addition, IIE can assist entrepreneurs with using the test site to develop successful businesses.
The testing may reveal how autonomous systems could reduce costs associated with offshore wind energy, said Jerry Cronin, program director for OpenSeas. If autonomous boats can manage some aspects of inspections, maintenance, marine mammal surveillance and more, the cost of energy could be reduced to rate payers.
The combined research efforts could establish the region as an international leader for maritime innovation. "We need to be the place that folks around the world turn to for thought leadership in maritime," Cronin said. "That's how people decide to invest in the region, locate an office here and tap our expertise."
Hampton Roads offers the perfect test kitchen to experiment with autonomous systems.
"If you can solve the problems in our region with the complexity we have," Costulis said, "You can solve them anywhere."